The Lure of Truth

The Aviary – the main theme introduced – Derek Hampson

The inspiration for The Aviary exhibition comes from reading Martin Heidegger’s The Essence of Truth (Continuum, 2002), a work that questions our understanding of the things we come across in our day to day lives, in terms of their “essence” and of their “truth.”

Heidegger begins by outlining the traditional understanding of these terms, before making a case for a return to an earlier conception of truth as “unhiddenness.”

Essence and Truth
The essence of something is what it is in general, e.g the essence of a table is what all tables have in common. It is also what we know in advance, we must know what a table is before we meet it, otherwise we would not be able to recognise it.

We can express particular truths about a table in the form of a proposition, for example that it is brown or that it is wooden. Each of these propositions is truthful because it corresponds to the facts about which it speaks. The truth of the proposition is its correspondence to the state of affairs that it is directed towards – the table being brown and wooden. The relationship between what is seen and what is said about it is grounded in correctness; if the proposition does not correctly describe the state of affairs that it addresses then it is not truthful. This leads Heidegger to define this understanding of truth as “correspondence, grounded in correctness, between the proposition and the thing.” (2)

Heidegger’s Refutation of Truth as Correspondence
From this analysis it appears that we already know what the essence of truth is, leading Heidegger to ask why bother to enquire further? He answers this question by pointing out that the concept of truth as correspondence is groundless, lacking a stable foundation.

The truth of a proposition such as “the table is brown” corresponds not with the table itself but with what it gives us to know, i.e. that it is brown. What we know, knowledge, corresponds with what is true – knowledge to be knowledge must grasp what is true, otherwise it is false and therefore not knowledge. Therefore when we say “the table is brown” the truth of this proposition corresponds with what we know, which in turn corresponds with what is true, which we know as true because it corresponds to what the table gives itself as, i.e. something brown. Therefore truth in this thinking is a cycle of correspondences, which, at its heart lies the necessary resemblance of the table to something given. This leads Heidegger to say that the apparent self-evidence of truth as correspondence is illusory.

In addition to propositional truth there is another use of the term, when it is applied to things, i.e. we can say “true gold” or a “true friend,” i.e. truth as what is “genuine.” Does this mean there are two separate definitions of the word, one that applies to propositions and one that applies to things? Or is there perhaps another meaning from which both emerge, meaning the understanding of truth as correspondence is inadequate?

In a similar fashion the concept of essence, what something is at all times, “the universal what-being” was applied to both tables and to truth, leading Heidegger to ask “are truths like tables, which just stand around, such that one can ask about them in the same way?” (3) When we ask about essence we are asking about what something is, i.e. its being, but do we know what being means? Heidegger answers in the negative. Thus the concept of essence is equally groundless.

Yet the understanding of truth as correctness appears self-evident to us, that is we accept it without question. This is because what is self-evident lies so close to us that we cannot get any distance from it, and therefore there is no possibility of having a detached view from which to fully comprehend and question it. To get a full view of the self-evidence of truth we need to step back from it, in order to observe it. Heidegger suggests this might be done by returning to a past understanding of the word.

Past Truth
Yet when Heidegger enacts this by comparing the Medieval Scholastic concept of truth with a Classical Greek understanding, he finds that they both agree with the present self-evidence of truth as correspondence grounded in correctness. For the Scholastics this is expressed as commensuratio, a measuring up; essence is quidditas the universal whatness of something. This reflects the thinking of Aristotle, for whom truth is Homoiōma (likeness) the correspondence of the experience to the thing experienced and essence is genus (the universal of the species). (6)

The tradition therefore does no more than confirm what we accept as self-evidently the essence of truth today, the alignment between the proposition and the thing seen. Heidegger says this proves that our present understanding has deep historical roots. It also means that merely returning to the past is not sufficient, What is needed is a “historical return,” a detachment from the present which allows a “leap” over it, towards an “authentic futurity.”

Truth as Unhiddenness
Heidegger proposes that this historical return be enacted by asking how truth was conceived at the beginning of philosophical thinking, i.e. with the Presocratics. Heidegger finds their word for truth is aletheia, which can be translated as “unhiddenness.”

Heidegger points out that aletheia has a privative structure, truth as a-lethia is what is not-hidden (“not” corresponds with the “a” of aletheia), it is that which has had the condition of hiddenness removed from it. Truth as aletheia therefore means something very different from truth as correctness, and speaks of a fundamentally different experience of the world. Truth as correctness applies to propositions, what we say about things. Truth as aletheia applies to the totality of nature, which Heidegger calls beings, which we experience as essentially hidden as “self-concealing.” Truth as correspondence is groundless, whereas for truth as aletheia, hiddenness, provides the ground from which we uncover beings as unhidden.

If the unhidden is truth, then the hidden must be false, therefore to understand the essence of truth as the unhidden we must start from what is false, the hidden. This is what Heidegger aims to do in the second part of The Essence of Truth: “An Interpretation of Plato’s Theaetetus with Respect to the Question of the Essence of Untruth,” which leads ultimately to the simile of the aviary.

Derek Hampson