Spinoza and Truth – Lecture 11

March 30, 2014

20120322_Gartenberg1What does Spinoza mean by truth? When we think about truth normally in philosophy then we think about the agreement between a statement and a state of affairs in the world, but this can’t be what Spinoza means by truth, at least not in any simply way. Why is this? Because for Spinoza truth cannot be the agreement between two different attributes, since attributes can have no causal relation to one another. Thus the idea of ‘tree’ cannot be true because it agrees with an object called a ‘tree’, rather an idea is true because it is true in itself and not because it ‘represents’ something else. What then does it mean to say that an idea is true in itself?

In one sense, Spinoza is repeating the story of truth that we have heard since Plato: perception is not sufficient to explain truth. This is because, as we know, perception does not tell me truth about things at all. Indeed if all I had were perceptions, then I probably wouldn’t have a very good idea of reality at all. One of the basis premises of the new modern science is what common sense tells us about nature (which we might say is the Aristotelian starting point) can only lead us astray. Common sense might tell me that the earth is at the centre of the universe, because that is how it appears to me, but I know in fact that this is not the case. What is true is not what my senses tell me, but what true knowledge does, and true knowledge is not perception, as Plato would have already told us, but mathematics. Copernicus does not disagree with Ptolemy because he saw something different in the heavens, but he postulated a different mathematical model and that is why he saw the heavens in a different way. It might be the case that Galileo did see something different in his telescope, but he wouldn’t have seen what he was looking for unless he had already agreed with Copernicus’s mathematical revolution.

If an idea is not true because it agrees with what I see with my eyes, then why is it true? Here we have to make a difference between the psychological event of having an idea and the content of the idea itself. I might be thinking of a circle because I see a circle. Or I might be thinking of circle because I associate it with something else. Perhaps I have being thinking about bears and then the idea ‘circle’ just pops in my mind. Or, I might be thinking about circle, but I have completely the wrong idea of circle in my mind. I might think lines drawn from the centre of the circle are not equal. None of the instances of thinking of the idea circle would make the idea true. The occasion of thinking the idea does not make the idea true (and this is really the reason why perception cannot be the source of the truth of ideas, since it psychologises them, and would make truth subjective). What is true is the objective content of the idea itself, which can be thought by anyone (or anything if it capable of thinking true ideas).

In proposition 35 of the second part of the Ethics, Spinoza explains how such an error is possible. There is no positive idea of falsehood. Strictly speaking there are no false ideas in themselves, because every idea is an idea of something that exists. Rather there are confused ideas. To have an ignorant idea is to have an idea of a positive thing, but in a confused way. The example that Spinoza gives in the scholium is the idea of freedom. Why is it that people falsely believe they are free? The answer is because they are ignorant of the causes that make them act the way they do. Because they are ignorant, they therefore think they are free. The cause of false ideas is not a real idea, but ignorance on our behalf, and this ignorance is always ignorance about causes. To use the other example that Spinoza gives in this scholium. I believe that the sun is 200 hundred feet away from me because I am ignorant of the true distance. Even though I know that the sun is further away than it seems. Because the distance that it appears from me is caused by the relation of my body to the sun, I might still fall under the error that the sun is closer than the actual distance. Of course I can also understand why it is that the sun appears in the way it does to me (I can understand for example that the sun really doesn’t get larger at sunset or change from yellow to red, but this is the effect of light in the Earth’s atmosphere), but that means I have to have a true idea of what the sun is and what the my body is and how they interact.

Because of our limited knowledge, Spinoza thinks that is very easy for us to have inadequate of idea of things, but does he think that we can have adequate idea? It would surprise us if he said ‘no’ to this questions, since Spinoza is an exponent of the new modern science. He is a realist. He does not think that our scientific theories are just our way of understanding what reality is, but are true picture of what is. Indeed Newton’s laws would be true, even if there were no human being to think them.

The difference is between understanding a particular thing as a mode or as an expression of substance. Let say I look at a stretch of water that is in front of me. I could just describe the water as I see it, perhaps in the way that I writer might describe it in a story, or painter paint it. Or I could describe it in terms of substance. Not just this stretch of water in front of me, but through an attribute that expresses not just this part of reality, but the whole of reality. Isn’t this just what science does? Science does not explain this or that particular instance or occasion of water, but the reality of water as such, which for Spinoza would be explained in the current scientific explanation of nature through the general laws of physics. This would be to have an adequate, as opposed to an inadequate understanding of water, because I would be understanding its true cause, which is substance explained in this case through the attribute extension.

The laws of physics are what Spinoza calls ‘common notions’. The occasion for us to have ideas is our bodies, for this nothing in our minds that does not come via our bodies. Thus if we didn’t have eyes to see the sun, then we wouldn’t have the idea of sun. The error, then is not think that the ‘truth’ of the idea of the sun somehow has its origin in us. We can think the true idea of the sun, because the true idea of the sun corresponds (or is the same as) as the causal relation between the mode and substance. There cannot be any other idea of the sun that is true because nature cannot be any different than what it is, otherwise substance would be lacking that different reality and therefore would not be infinite.

How can we escape the confused ideas of the realm of sensations and affections? We can only do so when we understand ideas internally and not externally. To understand ideas internally means to know the necessary order and connections of ideas themselves and not how they are encountered through affections. Yet even though I might know the difference between the two, how do I take the step from one to the other? It is probably wrong to say that Spinoza rejects imagination, because this would be argue that he rejects the body, but as we know, for Spinoza, only through the body can I know the world. There must then be a route from inadequate to adequate knowledge, and the key is ‘common notions’.

Inadequate knowledge only tells me about my individual encounters with things. What Spinoza calls duration. How something appears to me at a certain time and place, and which I might subsequently remember and associate with other things. But I can, through duration, leap out of duration. I can recognise what is ‘common to all things’. In so doing, I am understanding the mode through substance and not through another modes, which I can only have a limited knowledge of. It is possible to understand the causal relation between substance and modes. It is not possible to understand the infinite causal relation between modes (it is this inadequate understanding we have seen, for example, that produces the error of free will).

It is very important not to confuse common notions with universals. In IIP40S1, Spinoza disputes the existence of universals precisely because they are not common notions. I can have an adequate idea of scientific laws of nature that are common to all bodies, but what I cannot have is the idea of all horses that would be common to the universal ‘Horse’. The latter is merely a word, whereas the former is a true idea. This is why we differ in what we mean by the word ‘horse’, but we do not differ when we understand what is common to all things (like extension and the laws of nature that follow immediately from it), because this is common to nature as such, and not just a use of words. When we understand the universe, we understand it as it is in reality, and our understanding cannot be any different from God’s (what the universe is in reality in terms of truth), because there couldn’t be any other understanding. There is no mysterious transcendent cause, nor any distinctive human understanding (as there is in Kant for example) that would be any different from truth of what is actually in reality, which would be true whether we knew it or not.

It is possible to have adequate ideas because it is possible to know the causes of things. Of course as finite beings, it is not possible to for us to know the cause of everything, but that does not mean that we know nothing. It is possible for us to understand the essence of God for example, for Spinoza. It is possible for us to understand the idea of a triangle, though it is not possible for us to have the idea of every triangle that has ever existed. To have an adequate idea is to understand something through its cause rather than its effects. Thus to have an adequate idea of the sun is to understanding why it makes my skin feels warm and appears closer than it is in reality, as opposed to an inadequate idea, which starts with effects, my warm skin, the appearance of the sun and the sky, and argues backwards towards the cause. The sun is close to me in the sky because it is circling the earth; the sun warms the my skin because it was created by God to benefit human beings. Both these arguments are false because they argue from effects rather than causes. To understand the effects of the sun through its cause is to follow the order of reality itself. It is to go from substance as it expressed through its attributes and then to modes. Rather than to start with modes and to try and get back to attributes and from there to substance.

We have only distinguished between inadequate and adequate knowledge in this lecture, but there is third level of knowledge that Spinoza describes in IIP40S2, which he calls ‘intuitive’. We will have to wait to Part 5 of the Ethics to find out what this.

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The True World – Lecture 2

February 1, 2013

Just as was the case with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche pervades the pages of Being and Time, but if you were to try and prove this by the amount of times that Heidegger refers to his work, then you would equally fail.[1] Just as we said in our lecture on Kierkegaard, however, weighing up citations does not really prove anything at all. Indeed, you might argue their absence proves more than their presence. For if Heidegger had signalled the importance of Nietzsche in Being and Time, then he would have had to litter the text with footnotes. Yet perhaps this importance is more than just scholarly. If Nietzsche is present everywhere in the pages of Being and Time, it is not because this work is an interpretation of Nietzsche, or just follows on from the work of Nietzsche, as though Heidegger’s own philosophy were just a new version of one of Nietzsche’s famous thesis on the eternal return or the will to power. To understand the importance of Nietzsche to Being and Time, you have to interpret it from this vantage point and not impose it from the outside, as though you were just hunting for citations and reference. Such an activity, anyway, is strange way of doing philosophy. It transformation the creativity of thought into a hobby of collecting numbers.

Being and Time opens with the question of being. Not only do we not know the answer to this question but we do not even know what it means to ask it. If Heidegger is going to convince us that it is even worth doing so then he has to have a method. This method is twofold. First of all he has to show us why it is that we have forgotten it and secondly what it is that we have forgotten otherwise we would not know that we had forgotten it. The first method is historical and the second is phenomenological and it is in the first that we might discern the influence of Nietzsche.

To think is not to think in isolation. We might think that there is a simple agreement with what we say about the world and what the world is. Either we think this agreement as its source in the world, so that the aim of knowledge is to discover the truth that is in the world itself. Or we might think its origin is in the subject, such that it is we who have to agree with the world, but the world that has to agree with us. We can see in these two forms the oppositions that have characterised Western philosophy itself throughout its long history through various forms of idealism and materialism. What is common across this opposition, however, is the idea that truth is a representation. One says that the true image of reality is to be found in the world and we simply have to see it there, and the other, in the self, so we simply have to look at ourselves. What is lacking in this account of truth is any sense of history. It either asserts that the world is atemporal and eternal, or the self is atemporal and eternal. Error is not a property of either the universal world or the self, but the individual who has mistaken truth for its opposite. Science, then, is nothing but the progress to an ultimate truth that has been there from the very beginning and which, one supposes, if we ever reach it, will mean that science itself will come to an end. Each individual scientist has been seeking for the same truth from the very beginning, and if they made mistakes, then this was because they were ignorant or biased. Now from our vantage point, because we know that we our closer to the truth than they, we can see this even though they cannot. They thought they were speaking the truth but they were not.

What does it mean to think truth historically? It means that one understands that the representation of the world is not first but second. The source of our image of the world has its origin in a tradition that is itself not an image. Take for example Nietzsche’s argument in his essay ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-moral Sense’(Nietzsche 1990).[2] Truth is something that has to appear on this planet. It is an accomplishment, not a given. In other words, there have to forces that produce and create truth. It is only because we have forgotten that truth has a history that we think the agreement between the self and the world, whether from the side of the world or the self, is natural and universal to the human species. It is in this social existence that the first urge for truth arises. It is society that fixes the truth of terms. The liar is excluded because he misuses words and meanings. So it is not deception that bothers us but what harm comes to us from deception and we want truth because it is agreeable and preserves our existence. Truth is first of all normative. It’s basis is that we experience the world in the same way and this can only be brought about through social force. We have to be made to feel the world in the same way. Only then can we claim that truth is in us or outside of us as a representation.

Truth is imposed upon us by society. We use the same metaphors as everyone else. Lie like everyone else. We forget that we are lying so no-one knows that they are lying. Because we forget, we think the lies are the truth. This commitment to truth is moral, for one’s attachment to it means that you judge as the liar the one who does not speak conventionally. You also judge yourself. You think only in abstractions and universals, and you ignore every subtle impression or sensation. Thus everything is reduced to schemata and diagrams that turn the perceptual and visual world into a grid. This how we humanise the world so that it does not threaten and disturb us. You have to understand that this is first of all a moral order. We force the world to conform to our concepts and then only subsequently say that it is true.

Does this mean, then, that Nietzsche himself is telling us lies. Does he not fall for the paradox of claiming that everything is lie apart from the statement ‘everything is lie’? That would be so if the only account of truth that we could give is representational. If the only truth were the agreement of the world with the self, either from the side of the world or from the viewpoint of the self, then Nietzsche would be the relativist that people confuse him with, because they think that when he says that everything is an interpretation he means that every truth is just what you say it is. Yet this truth, as we have seen, is not first but second. It is the result of certain history that prioritises representational thought, but it itself cannot be representational. There must, therefore, be another kind of truth, a ‘higher’ then this kind.

First of all there must be a truth about the history of truth. We must be able to examine how this truth came about, and also that there could be other truths, other ways of conceiving the world than agreement. This method Nietzsche calls genealogy. So his Genealogy of Morals, for example, is not about the definition of morality, as one might find in Kant and Bentham, but this history of this morality, which has a common source, even though at the level of representation they appear as opposites. The history of morality is the study of how something like morality came about in the first place and how different moralities are expressed in different civilisations and through time. Yet the past is not just for the sake of the past, for Nietzsche. It is not about collecting facts like an entomologist butterflies, but how the past means something for us in the future. Why does it matter to us, what does it have to say to us, and how will it change us. Nietzsche interest in the Ancient Greeks, for instance in The Birth of Tragedy, was not merely a matter of historical curiosity about the past, but that they could say something to us about our future.

Why the ancient Greeks were so important is that they had not fallen under the thrall of representational truth, though there philosophy, to some extent, in the thought of Plato and Aristotle, set in train its eventual triumph. What the ancient Greeks knew, and what they could still teach us, is that the world is not first of all represented but created. Even the world as representation had to be created. Creation, then is the other meaning of truth, as well as history. For what we see when we look at history of truth is its creation. It is these creations that are the original source for the paradigms of truth that over time forget their own origins so that they confuse themselves for the truth.

Creativity requires freedom otherwise how could there be other possibilities than the reality that faces us? When we think about freedom, however, we think about in terms of freedom of choice. We think freedom is simply a matter of choosing between one thing and another, or between one life and another. We have already seen with Kierkegaard that this is not the only way of interpreting freedom. What freedom means for Nietzsche is self-determination and self-determination is nothing like choosing, and indeed from its perspective self-determination will look very much like un-freedom.

When we come to think of the difference ourselves and nature, we think of nature as being determined and ourselves as being free. We think of nature made up of atoms which are causally tied together by the chain of necessity. We however, are more than just atoms (though they make up our physical nature) because we have reason. Freedom is not a natural property of something. Freedom does not exist in this way. Rather freedom is an idea. It has no reality about from people asserting it. Yet this difference between freedom and necessity mirrors the very opposition between idealism and materialism that is the basis of representational truth, and which we have seen Nietzsche rejects. This is why some readers of Nietzsche can get confused and think he’s a determinist and cannot understand how at the same time he will speak of genius and creativity. If you think you are free because you have reason, then Nietzsche is a determinist, because he would claim that this idea is a fiction. But that the same time the causal universe of science is also only an idea. Reality goes deeper than both reason and matter. It is the lived body.

What Nietzsche means by the livid body is not the physiological body of science, since that body too is thought in terms of causes and effects, but existence. Existence here is not a category of thought, but a way of being. When we speak of a physical body, then we are thinking of body that is common to many, but existence is not. Existence is individual. The body that Nietzsche speaks of is my body. The body I live in and which expresses my being concretely and not abstractly. It is my body which first of all says who I am and not thought. Thought has its source in the unthought and the unthought is the body with feelings, instincts and drives. It is the body which is the vehicle of history (it is the body that both resists and is formed by power) and not thought that only catches up with history retrospectively.

I am where my body already is shaped by history and projected into the future. The real opposition is not between the self and the world, which is an opposition of thought and not the body, but between thought and the unthought. Thought want to say that it is it that battles against thought, but in fact thought has its origin in the unthought, and without it thought would be sterile and lack creativity. We do not first exist as individuals because we think, since the thinking self is the universal self that is common to everyone. I exist first of all as the lived self that is my body. Only retrospectively does this body think. Reason has its origin in the historical being of the concrete individual, and not the other way around as it likes to imagine.

The ontological freedom of self-determination is to become who you already are. To become what your body, in its historical being, has already fated you to be. The choice I have is affirmation. Can I affirm my individual existence or not, and not whether I can choose between one action or not. The authentic individual is not someone who makes choices, but who seizes their own existence as their own. Outwardly nothing has changed at all. I am still the person I have always been and would have been. Yet this time I accept fully the person that I am. To do so, for both Heidegger and Nietzsche, means to live in the truth. It cannot be understood, of course, in terms of representational truth, for that would mean an agreement between the self and the world, an acceptance of reality, and a passivity in relation to its image, whether that image was  internal or external. To live in the truth is to be revealed to oneself as one is out of one’s past and forward into the future.

Works Cited

Haase, U.M., 2008. Starting with Nietzsche, London; New York: Continuum.

Heidegger, M., 1981. Nietzsche: The Will to Power as Art, Taylor & Francis.

Nietzsche, F.W., 1990. Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s, Humanity Books.


[1] There are only three references to Nietzsche, as David Farrell Krell remarks in his analysis of Heidegger’s later lectures on the same philosopher, in Being and Time (Heidegger 1981, p.247)

[2] Ulrich Haase provides an excellent guide to this text and to Nietzsche thought as a whole in his introduction, which is more than just an introduction since it is a philosophical interpretation, Starting with Nietzsche (2008, pp.22–23). Much that is written here is inspired by it.


The Justice of Truth – Lecture 3

January 27, 2013

Ethics is the condition of truth and not truth ethics. Western philosophy accepts as its starting point that the first relation to the world is one of knowledge and then attempts to reconstruct society on that basis. For Levinas, on the contrary, the first relation is social in the form of the ethical relation of the self to the other who calls into question by enjoyment and possession of the world through speech.

The fundamental question for Western philosophy is how can I know the world? How can I be certain that my experience of the world is valid and I am not betrayed by appearances. There are two directions in which one might go in order to answer this question. One might say that I agree with the world or the world agrees with me. In the former, reality is given, and I seek to understand it, whereas in the later, reality is constructed and I have to seek to understand myself. In both cases truth is a matter of agreement, of wresting agreement from the anarchy of my first experiences. From Plato onwards, we might say, the general tendency of, with certain notable exceptions, philosophy is to discover the truth of the world in the self. Not that truth is subjective in any simple sense, but that the truth of the world exists in a common reason that we all share, but which we can only discover individually through our own application of this reason. Philosophy is both the discovery of this reason, and the means to achieve it.

Levinas is not doubting the truth of this truth, but whether the ascent to it could have a begun without a social relation that makes it possible but which, at the same time, is not reducible to it. The search for objective truth forgets this relation because it forgets its beginning and thinks that it has founded, like Plato’s Republic, the true society on its own rational principles which have neither beginning nor end, and in which each individual is ideally treated as equal. Such an equality is the highest principle of political theory, which is freedom.

Perhaps this concept of freedom, however, conceals a violence it is unaware of (or perhaps sometimes all too aware, since someone’s freedom might be an other’s tyranny). For the freedom of equality abolishes the difference between myself and the other that Levinas argues is the very possibility of ethics and therefore peace. Yet Levinas’s argument is not only a negative one, as we have already hinted, where a freedom that is conceived as greater than the social relation to the other, has, if left to its own devices the danger of becoming violence and war, but also a positive argument that even this freedom cannot exist without the social relation that precedes it. The politics of freedom might be necessary, but if it is not invested by the ethical relation, then it can, as history has so often taught is, become the very tyranny that it abhors. What philosophy sees as an achievement won, the equality of all, Levinas worries might lead us to forget the inequality of the relation the other, without which this equality can lead to violence (we fight wars, for example, for the sake of this freedom).

Even when we ordinarily speak about truth we talk about justification. Such a claim is usually thought about in terms of objectivity. A justified claim or judgement is a legitimate one. But we could take this justification literally. What would a justified speech be ethically? To speak justly for Levinas is first of all to respond to the presence of the other. I justify myself in front of them. This does not just mean that knowledge of the world is shared. The social condition for knowledge is not inter-subjectivity, because inter-subjectivity treats the terms in the relation as equivalent. The I and the Other are not separate from one another but unified in a ‘We’. This presupposes that the only way to think of the social relation is as a totality.

The constraint of my freedom is not worked out in advance through calculation but is the shame I feel in front of the other. If the presence of the other did not first of all call into question my enjoyment and possession of the world, then no such embarrassment would be possible, and then I would not have to justify myself. Such a constraint is not a battle of wills. It is not that other forces me to submit to their will, for this would treat the other as though they were the same as myself, and then it would be impossible to distinguish peace from war. I am only aware of my injustice because of the other not because I have arrived at it through my own self-reflection on the limits of my freedom. Such an limit comes from without and not within. It is not a limit of my power, but a limit set to my power by the other who I respond to through the demand their presence makes on me. The other is already justified. It is I who have to justify myself to them. This fact that I have to justify myself in the face of the other, Levinas call conscience and it is the very impetus to moral action.

Conscience welcomes the Other. It is the revelation of a resistance to my powers that does not counter them as a greater force, but calls in question the naïve right of my powers, my glorious spontaneity as a living being. Morality begins when freedom, instead of being justified by itself, feels itself to be arbitrary and violent. [TI 84]

We are not then, as Sartre would say, condemned to be free. Rather our freedom is ‘inverted’ in the face of the Other. I do not first of all assert my freedom and then find that it is limited by obstacles in my way (those obstacles being indifferently people and things). On the contrary, my freedom is compromised from the very beginning, or prior to the beginning if one thinks that reality begins with a self that is in charge of itself. I am already guilty before I have accepted this guilt, because its existence is not dependent on my choice. It already defines my existence (even if I refuse to acknowledge it). The original source of the freedom of the self, which is the freedom to take up one’s existence is not to be found in the relation of this self to itself, but in its relation to the other. The genesis of my freedom, therefore is in the other. Freedom again is always freedom justified and not the arbitrary will that finds after the fact that nothing goes its own way. This anteriority of the demand of the other over my apparent independence Levinas calls ‘creation’ [TI 85]. Creation is not originally a theological concept, the absurd idea that the world is created by a God from a pure act of will (such an image of God is no different from the very arbitrary will of the subject that is called into question by the presence of the other), but recognition that the self is a dependent being before it even asserts its independence and that this independence, which must be real otherwise there would be no separation, is paradoxically a dependent one.

If knowledge is critique, as Kant would assert, then it comes from the side of the other and not the self. Self-critique ends up in an infinite regression where the self-reflection of the self upon itself disappears in a hall of mirrors. Only the presence of the other can truly critique the limits of my knowledge and thus provide it with its own external foundations. It can provide such a limit because the other is not an object of my knowledge or comprehension. It is that against which knowledge itself breaks. But why wouldn’t such an limit be an appeal to irrationality and myth? We might accept that the other is the limit to knowledge but this is not the same as saying that it is the ultimate source or foundation of knowledge, unless we appear to be saying that reason has its origin in unreason which would be tantamount to giving up on the possibility of Western philosophy.

When Levinas says that Western philosophy perceives reality in one way and prioritises thematisation, I do not think he means by that that we should give up philosophy, thought, or reason. The limits of philosophy are not philosophy’s limits which, like Kant’s famous island are always surrounded by the fog of superstition and enthusiasm for the unknowable, but there are the limits to philosophy. Philosophy itself has its non-philosophical source in the relation to the presence of the other. This relation is not mystical or mythical, but one of speech. It is speech first of all that makes philosophy possible, but the concrete experience of conversation is not itself reducible to a philosophical theme.[1]

Here we must make a distinction between what is said in speech and the act of speaking itself. It is not in what the other says to me that I have to justify myself, for what is said is common to each of us. It is the very impersonal reason that philosophy seeks to justify itself without recourse to the other. Yet what is said is only possible because someone speaks. The sign always refers back to a signified, to an idea or a concept. Such a signified always belongs to a systems of ‘signifieds’ and thus forms a totality of meaning. The other in speech, however, is not first of all a sign, because if that is all they were then the other and the same would be equivalent. They would be signs that belong to the same totality. The transcendence of the other is not what they say or what is said about them, but the saying itself that attaches itself to the word that is spoken. This for Levinas is the primary meaning of discourse. The speaker is present in the words they speak. It is to this presence that I respond. It is in this presence, or revelation to distinguish it from Heidegger’s disclosure, that I am called into question and must justify my freedom. In speech, therefore, the speakers, as opposed to what is said, are not at the same level. I speak in response to the other. The priority of the appeal of the Other to me is the measure of my responsibility in the ethical sense. My subjectivity is first of all responsibility and this responsibility, as a social relation, is the very condition of knowledge. For if knowledge is what is said, the ideas and concepts we use in order to understand the world and to share it in common both theoretically and practically, then there is no knowledge without the speakers and this speech is already curved towards the other. I must speak because the other address me. The priority of the presence of the other in speech Levinas calls ‘teaching.’[2]

The opposite of such a presence would be the ‘evil genius’ of Descartes’ Meditations. Such a description, however, is not the authentic portrayal of the other, but how reality would appear without teaching. A silent world is one in which I can find no certainty because the appearance of things is ambiguous and equivocal. Nothing seems as it is and the world is one of fear and terror. If the other were not present in the words they speak, then truth would not be a possibility. The world is first of all offered to me in the sincerity of the other’s speech and then it is subsequently thematised and theorised. Without this sincerity, I would never be able to trust the world and would, like the famous cogito, be stranded between the world of dreams and reality.

The objectivity and usefulness of things comes from within language that is the relation to the other, language as a social relation first of all, and not a description of reality that comes second. The truth of statements, therefore, is dependent of the statement of truth, which is not something said, but the orientation of speech: the one responding to the other. This orientation is even prior to Heidegger’s reformulation of truth as disclosure in Being and Time, where the truth of propositions is dependent on a disclosure of the world to me. Speech has nothing at all to do with the visible. I do see the other and then respond to them. They do not make themselves manifest to me. I respond to them in the straightforwardness of their appeal to me. I am made responsible to them in this infinite demand which transcends any possible idea or concept that I might have of them, and even goes beyond their disclosure as being within the network of habits and decisions that make up my everyday world. I am not with others, if we mean by ‘with’ side by side with them. The other calls into question my enjoyment and possession of the world. They are not an extra item to be added alongside. The locus of truth is society and not being.

Work Cited

Cohen, J., 2005. Interrupting Auschwitz Art, Religion & Philosophy, New York; London: Continuum.

 


[1] This is the positive meaning of Plato for Levinas, beyond the metaphysics of the theory of forms. Philosophy begins in conversation and it is not possible without it.

[2] There is an important issue here that throughout Totality and Infinity, Levinas describes the ethical relation in terms of speech, where the other is present in the words they speak. One might argue, however, that such a description undermines the difference between the self and the other, since the self too must be present in the words that they speak. For the issues of speech and writing in Levinas’s work see Cohen’s, ‘Absolute Insomnia: Interrupting Religion, or Levinas’, in Interrupting Auschwitz: Art, Religion, Philosophy (2005, pp.71–106).


Heidegger and Truth – Lecture 3

November 25, 2012

So far we have been looking at two kinds of logic, informal and formal in our introductory course on philosophy. Both take for granted a certain interpretation of truth, which is agreement. The truth of a sentence is the agreement of that sentence with some state of affairs in the world. A purely logical sentence might only have an internal validity but the truth of its premises is to be found in some experience of the world in which I can verify the meaning of the words.

In section 44 of Being and Time, ‘Dasein, Disclosedness, and Truth’, Heidegger questions this priority of this logical meaning of truth. We have, however already, seen such a questioning of the priority of propositional truth in another text we have read this semester. When Gaita writes that whatever the nun revealed to him about their mistreatment of patients in his book Common Humanity, was not open to an ‘epistemic routes’, then he is questioning the value of propositional truth for ethical inquiry (Gaita 2000, p.22).

When we think about truth, we usually think about it in terms of judgement. It is precisely this way of truth that is common to both formal and informal logic and is very visible in its examples which usually take the form of sentences or propositions. ‘Truth’ as a word is simply taken as granted. A sentence is either true or false, and this consists only of whether it is consistent or valid. Heidegger argues that there is a more primordial notion of truth, which is a kind of showing or manifesting. What is the traditional notion of truth that Heidegger wants to show is secondary? The traditional notion of truth is judgement, and the essence of truth lies in the agreement of the judgement with the state of affairs that it represents. This notion of truth is known as adequation or correspondence:

The ‘locus’ of truth is assertion (judgement); that the essence of truth lies in the ‘agreement’ of the judgement with its object; that Aristotle, the father of logic, not only has assigned truth to the judgement as its primordial locus but has set going the definition of ‘truth’ as ‘agreement’.(Heidegger 1962, p.214)

What Heidegger is attempting to show in this section is that this conception of truth has a hidden ontology which conceals the real meaning of truth as disclosure, manifestation or presence. His aim, therefore, is not to demonstrate the logical conception of truth is false, but that it is secondary. The first question that needs to be asked is what kind of agreement is proper to this definition of truth, and how is this agreement possible. Heidegger uses the example of man who has turned his back to the wall and makes the true assertion: ‘the picture of the wall is hanging askew.’ The truth of the assertion is demonstrated when the man turns around and sees that the picture really is askew. In this example, we can grasp that assertion is a way that we relate to things. To be able to assert something of something I must be already be involved with that thing in some way or other: ‘asserting,’ Heidegger writes ‘is a way of Being towards the Thing itself that is’.(Heidegger 1962, p.260) Asserting then is the uncovering or disclosing of thing. This showing itself by being uncovered is the ontological expression of judgement. There are two ontology conditions for assertion:

  1. Things show themselves.
  2. There is a being whose Being is a being-towards things and person which show themselves.

Truth must first of all, therefore, being defined as an ‘uncovering’ (Entdeckend). But uncovering is only possible if there is a being whose existence is already expressed as having a world in which things or other people can be present. Only because the painting on the wall is something that means something to me in my world, and that it not hanging straight is something that is significant to me, would I make an assertion about it and would this assertion first of all be true or not true. Truth is first of all a way being toward things and persons in a world. In Heidegger’s language it is a way of bringing these entities out of their concealment in into the disclosure. One might imagine in a different culture that such things would not matter and therefore they would not be revealed as significant and no-one would make any statements about them.

The ontological meaning of truth is visible in the original Greek conception of truth as aletheia, which literally means un-forgetting, un-concealing, or un-hiddenness:

‘Being-true’ (‘truth’) means Being uncovering. […] But while our definition is seemingly arbitrary, it contains only the necessary interpretation of what was primordially surmised in the oldest tradition of ancient philosophy and even understood in a pre-phenomenological manner. […] Being-true is aletheia in the manner of apophainesthai – of taking entities out of their hiddenness and letting them be seen in their unhiddenness (their uncoveredness). (Heidegger 1962, p.219)

If truth is way a being in the world, then it can only belong to that being that exists in a world. The only being whose being is being in the world is Dasein, which is Heidegger’s word for human beings. That I can make judgements and assertions about things must mean that they are ‘there’ in some manner and that they show themselves to be there; that is, they are already significant. But this ‘there’ is dependent on a more primordial ‘there’. This ‘there’ is the space of disclosure. This space itself is not a thing, but the world in which things and person become intelligible. Disclosure is the coming to presence of things and persons, and some thing or person being present is dependent on this originary disclosure:

Uncovering is a way of Being for Being-in-the-world. Circumspective concern, or even that concern in which we tarry and look at something uncovers entities within-the-world. These entities become that which has been uncovered. They are ‘true’ in the second sense. What is primarily ‘true’ – that is uncovering – is Dasein.(Heidegger 1962, p.220)

Something can be true only because Dasein in some sense exists ‘in the truth’. What does it mean to say that Dasein exists in the truth? It certainly does not mean that it knows everything; rather is means that it belongs to the possibility of Dasein of uncovering things and persons in the world. The world already has to have an interpretation, a significance, a sense for me, before I can make any judgement about it. This interpretation is not itself cognitive, if we mean by cognitive making assertions about things, but expresses the background of my everyday experience of the world in which I am always already involved with things and persons. I must already relate to things in this manner before any logical relation to them, and this relatedness itself is dependent on the disclosure that belongs to Dasein’s way of being.

Why is it that the logical notion of truth has become to be seen as the only notion of truth? This too must be understood in terms of Dasein’s everyday being. Dasein understands itself in its relation to things and persons. For the most part when it makes this understanding visible to itself it does so through things and persons being present to hand. It ends up with a notion of being in general, as Heidegger describes in the opening pages of Being and Time, which itself is nothing but ‘present-to-handness’, where the world is no longer visible. Yet, the ‘present-to-hand’ has its source in Dasein’s own being that cannot be understood in terms of something present to hand, but must be understood as being-in-the-world. How then to make sense of being in the world without reference to logic? My primary relation to things and other people is not present-to-hand as philosophers think it is, but ready-to-hand. I use things before I make specific judgements about them. Thus I use the hammer to hammer a nail before I make a judgement about the hammer being a hammer. In using the hammer, I have in mind a specific goal or purpose: building a shed. This project itself only makes sense in terms my practical world: something to put my garden tools in, and in the end the fundamental sense of my existence (why do I have a garden). My world is just the way in which things and persons related to one another in terms of their significance. This significance is given to them by my existence that includes both my cultural background and the individual sense that I give it, but this world is lived before it is known, and in fact the perceptual or even epistemological scientific world is dependent on the fact that I live in this world, rather than this world being dependent on them. The source of the doctrine that truth is first of logical has it origin, therefore, in Dasein own misunderstanding of its own being. Because it sees itself as a thing, it forgets that logical statements already need a context (which itself is not logical) so that they can have a meaning.

There is only truth because Dasein is. It we did not exist then nothing would be true. It is because we exist in a relation to things and they matter to us that they are there. If we were not there then they would not be true. They of course would still exist, but they would not exist for someone and therefore would not be true. This is even the case with the most sophisticated understanding of science. As Heidegger writes, ‘Newton’s laws, the principle of contradiction, any truth whatsoever – these are only true as long as Dasein is.’(Heidegger 1962, p.226) Science too, as logic, is not the original relation to the world. It is only because we have or live in a world, which is part of our way of being, that things are present to us and we can make judgements about them or attempt to understand them. But this scientific understanding is always derivative of a cultural background of intelligibility supporting it.

Work Cited

Gaita, R., 2000. A Common Humanity : Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice, London: Routledge.

Heidegger, M., 1962. Being and Time, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.