By Peter Landry.1
Proceeding from Aristotle's definition of Philosophy, "knowledge of truth," leads us to consider the meaning of two words: knowledge and truth.
Knowledge is the mental image, a faithful reflection of the true state of things as they really exist. In spite of the traditional idea that knowledge is subjective: It is objective, outside of oneself. Being objective, it can be attacked and defended without reference to the individual who holds the assertion that a particular piece of knowledge is correct, or that it is false.2
As for what is truth? Well, that is a question over which philosophers argue. It is a state of mind free of error, a state of mind which is an accurate reflection of things in existence, of the things about you. The first thing to know about truth is that it is unchangeable; it is ageless and constant. Truth does not vary or shift, it is a piece of unalterable reality. It follows, therefore, that truth is the same for all of us, thus, one should be repelled by the expression that "what is true for you is not true for me."
The second thing to know about truth is that the discovery of truth serves a purpose. To determine the true state of affairs of your physical surroundings is essential to a person's life; to take a simple example, it is important for one to know what is immediately ahead when walking about, a nasty fall can lead to the hospital, or worse. Some of our "higher" mental concepts, if wrong, can lead us, equally as well, to an unhealthy state. It was Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), the English evolutionary philosopher who said, "Ethical truth is as exact and peremptory as physical truth." (A number of our scientific concepts are true, and the proof is to be had by beholding the modern technical world; so, too it can be said that a number of our ethical or moral concepts, are not true, and the proof, likewise, is to be had by beholding the starvation and misery existing in today's world.)
The road to truth can be long and difficult; and, to be sure, it is never ending; but there are rules, Bacon's Rules.
"There are in fact four very significant stumbling blocks in the way of truth, which hinder every man however learned, and scarcely allow anyone to win a clear title to wisdom, namely, the example of weak and unworthy authority, long standing custom, the feeling of the ignorant crowd, and the hiding of our own ignorance while making a display of our apparent knowledge." (Roger Bacon, 1214-92.)
So, let us put aside our existing notions and begin at the beginning:
"The universe, so far as we observe it, is a wonderful and immense engine; its extent, its order, its beauty, its cruelty, make it impressive. ... Like all animals and plants, the cosmos has its own way of doing things, not wholly rational not ideally best, but patient, fatal, and fruitful. ... It is the dispenser of all our joys? We may address it without superstitious terrors; it is not wicked. It follows its own habits abstractedly; it can be trusted to be true to its own word. Society is not impossible between it and us, and since it is the source of all our energies, the home of all our happiness, shall we not cling to it and praise it ..." (George Santayana, 1863-1952, Reason in Religion.)
"This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; ... [not to be] a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy." (Geo. Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950, "Man and Superman.")
So, what must be accepted as true, is that there are no great conflicting forces, such as evil and good, in the universe.
"Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, [do not exist] ... the great world, so far as we know it from the philosophy of nature, is neither good nor bad, and is not concerned to make us either happy or unhappy. All such philosophies spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy." (Bertrand Russell, 1872-1970, What I believe, 1925.)
If one was forced to point to the most remarkable development in the past two centuries, - two centuries marked by a huge number of remarkable developments - What would it be? It would not, - for me - be the automobile, nor the aeroplane; nor would it be antibiotics; nor would it be the splitting of the atom; nor would it be the computer: - It would be, - "man's unveiling of the face and figure of the reality of which he forms part, the first picture of human destiny in its true outlines."3
Reality has only gradually dawned on us, - piece by piece, development after development. This reality is that there does exist, in total, a living universe; and we, as thinking men and women, can come to the conclusion that we are part of this universe, we have a place in it.
These developments were brought on by men, philosophers long since dead. Many wrote books, some with formidable titles, titles you might actually recall from your greener days. One might find it to be an interesting exercise, especially in the light of the many social problems we see around us today, to reflect on the eternal thoughts expressed, - perchance, for the moment, as a lover of wisdom, to become a philosopher.
2 That knowledge is subjective is refuted in Popper's book, Objective Knowledge.
3 To be found in the preface of Sir Julian Huxley's [1887-1975] book, New Bottles for New Wine, London: Chatto & Windus, 1957.)
[Essays, First Series]
[Essays, Second Series]
[Essays, Third Series]
[Essays, Fourth Series]