Quid est veritas?

‘What is truth?” This is what Pontius Pilate is recorded as asking Jesus before the Crucifixion (John 18:38). In the millennia since then, politicians and philosophers have tried to supply answers, or at least further analysis. This has included considering whether truth should be assessed as a concept in epistemology (the theory of knowledge), which would address validity and evidence; or metaphysics (the theory of abstract concepts of being and knowing). The academic community more widely is charged with identifying truth, using available evidence to sustain or reject hypotheses. Truth is central to academic study and scholarship.

In the political field, this debate has just been given an unexpected prompt. Ms Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s special counsellor, suggested on the US television programme Meet the Press that when the new White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, insisted on re-stating claims of easily rejected accuracy he was in fact providing ‘alternative facts’. The phrase, as many pointed out quickly, has significant Orwellian undertones, and must alarm anyone who feels that the interaction between politicians and the media is moderated by the production of evidence. But if Ms Conway’s philosophy holds sway, truth is neither knowledge nor belief (in that Mr Spicer cannot himself have believed the information he was peddling in the White House press briefing) but a matter of choice: the truth is what I tell you it is; its relationship with anything verifiable is not important.

In the run of human history, we have been here before. Now, as then, it is the duty of the academy to intervene, and to reinforce the integrity and importance of truth. There is an interesting task ahead, and one much more difficult (given the public mood) than any statement in a blog post may suggest. But very important.

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7 Comments on “Quid est veritas?”

  1. paulmartin42 Says:

    Given your religious start can I point you at this morning’s Prayer for the day: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08cs1bv – best read at the start as the audio comes in late.

    As he says Truth is not easy so I am curious as to which Academy you are waiting to intervene …. St Machar in North Aberdeen ?

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    The title of this post made me think of Bacon’s essay “What is truth?” (1625) which opens with the following:

    “What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer”

    thus implying that there was an answer, but that Pilate did not want to hear it, and this is often the attitude we are still facing today towards any problem that offends our prejudices, rouses our passions, or dares to challenge our *true* vision of the world. Bacon’s essay’s is worth reading in full, or listening to, in this video animation his prose really comes alive https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADcAikUJII8

    Let’s also remember that Goethe described Mephistopheles with the words “der stets verneint,” –the spirit who always denies- after all, rebutting evidence has always been a seductive and often irresistible temptation.


    • The essay by Bacon is as you say well worth a read – not least his statement that we lie for functional reasons but also because of the ‘natural though corrupt love of the lie itself’. And I imagine some might also relate to his suggestion that without ‘vain opinions, false valuations, imaginations as one would’, we would ‘leave the minds of a number of men poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves’.

      I also like your reference to Faust – the approach Mephisto takes to truth, for example in advising the confused student who thinks he is Faust, is quite wonderful in an awful way.

      But I fear we may be on our way back to the ‘Big Lie’, which as Hitler described it is ‘so colossal’ that people would think that ‘no one could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously’. Hitler was bizarrely accusing others, but his regime became the most extraordinary practitioners. As Goebbels said, one should ‘make the lie big and stick to it’. Godwin’s law and all that, but we live in dangerous times.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        Yes, the two extracts you quote from Bacon’s essay are exactly the ones which caught my attention as they resonate most with our modern sensibility, some ‘imaginations’ (and he had poetry in mind, among others) are necessary to alleviate our existential melancholia. There can be a certain ‘nobility’ in a lie, which Plato described in the Republic as useful to maintain social harmony, unfortunately what we are witnessing these days is the rise of the *bullshitter* which is different from the liar, I’m referring to a distinction introduced by the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his best-selling 2005 book On Bullshit. The bullshitter, according to Frankfurt, has a “lack of connection to a concern with truth,” and an “indifference to how things really are” and It is for this reason that we should fear the bullshitter more than other sorts of liars.

        One final observation on Bacon, in his essay “Of Goodness, and Goodness of Nature” he wrote: “If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island cut off from others lands, but a continent that joins to them.”

        contrast with what Theresa May said in her speech on Oct. 5 2016 to her Conservative party’s conference:

        “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

        The cultural decline of this country could not be more apparent, here lies the challenge for universities.

  3. Vince Says:

    In fairness what the Administrator was answering with Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια came about because Jesus was on a pretty esoteric rant rendering Greek philosophy and mashed it into Jewish historical tradition. And PP came from a very good understanding of the Socratic position on ‘Purity’ and its resistance to being defined I would say.
    It’s from a good grip on the Greek that Bacon comes at this also.

    Where I object is with the use of Philosophy in the context of that lot. The one thing they actively hate it seems, is wisdom. From any of it’s sources. I also find tedious in the extreme the habit Americans have of deifying the occupant of the White House in a way we approach the Pope (some of us anyway).


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