Wednesday, June 04, 2008

On Truth -- book

Anonymous: You’re not anonymous anymore but I won’t say a word. Thank you for the books which I have read and enjoyed.

On Truth, the second of the Frankfurt books, strikes me as crowding the old saying, “truth is stranger than fiction.” Having read it over carefully twice I confess to being disappointed. Frankfurt’s major claim seems to be that as truth has practical consequences it cannot be avoided seems obvious. He uses the examples of engineers and architects whose measurements must be true if their work is to be suitable. I would use a more homely example: if a tire goes flat, its flatness is true. No amount of philosophizing or wishful thinking can make it not flat. When you experience a flat tire you come up against an obvious truth, the practical consequences of which are obvious. These truths comprise much of our daily lives. He mentions post-modernists as those who do not believe in objective truths, maintaining that what is perceived by one as true is really only a matter of opinion. As one who could never take post-modernists seriously I think Frankfurt here is just chasing his tail. Even post-modernists would not assume their flat tire was not flat, theirs is an argument much more abstract and philosophical, but one I believe simply fails the test of credibility. To me they represent the ultimate bullshitters.

On page 16 of On Truth he makes a comment that I find inexplicable (at least I think that’s the word I want). He says: “It seems even more clear to me that higher levels of civilization must depend even more heavily on a conscientious respect for the importance of honesty and clarity in reporting facts, and on a stubborn concern for accuracy in determining what the facts are.” I have always had a great deal of trouble when it comes to the concept of “higher civilizations.” Higher in what way? I think people who speak of higher civilizations mean either their own or those with the most technological sophistication. I believe, however, that those who study cognition and such things have determined that people living in so-called civilized societies, in the course of their daily lives, are no more logical, rational, or practical than the so-called “savages,” presumed to represent lower forms of civilization. You might want to see Langness, The Study of Culture.

Related to this is Frankfurt’s apparent notion that we are made what we are because we are constantly confronting facts and truths that make us realize who we are. He says of this: “We learn that we are separate beings in the world, distinct from what is other than ourselves, by coming up against obstacles to the fulfillment of our intentions—that is, by running into opposition to the implementation of our will. When certain aspects of our experience fail to submit to our wishes, when they are on the contrary unyielding and even hostile to our interests, it then becomes clear to us that they are not parts of ourselves. We recognize that they are not under our direct and immediate control, instead it becomes apparent that they are independent of us. That is the origin of our concept of reality, which is essentially a concept of what limits us, of what we cannot alter or control by the mere movement of our will.” (p.99). This seems to me a strange view of the conditions of human life. We do not live in a world of facts, truths, obstacles, and problems that we must confront on a daily basis. We exist in cultures that for the most part transmit to us the already known solutions to problems. In Clifford Geertz’s elegant prose, “in webs of significance we ourselves have spun.” That is, there are many things about our cultures that are neither true or false, they just “are.” Where is the truth in customs like suttee, for example? Where is the truth in the ubiquitous human beliefs about supernatural beings? Where is the truth in beliefs about the polluting nature of menstrual blood or cliterodectomy, bleeding the penis? What about eating meat on Friday, or sacred cattle or monkeys? How about ghost marriages? Grotesque modifications of the body such as scarification or stretching the lips? In truth, we live in worlds mostly of our own creation, where truth in Frankfurt's sense, is only a small part of our life experience. All cultures, of course, no matter how primitive, have to confront truths of certain kinds, either the tire is flat or not, either the wild boar is alive and dangerous or dead and safe, either this bean is safe to eat and that one is not, either this container will hold so much water or not. But what about, it’s okay to have two or more wives or husbands, the sun is married to the moon, when your husband dies you should cut off a finger, and on and on and on. It seems to me that Frankfurt completely ignores the fact that one of the main purposes of a cultural mode of existence is that people do not have to confront over and over the same problems, relearn the same things every generation, and so on. The cultural "truths," transmitted extragenetically, come prepackaged, so to speak, and they are by no means truths in the way he wants to believe. It seems to me that Frankfurt is operating in the same defective paradigm of cultural evolution that has far more trouble than it has ever been worth. Perhaps I am wrong about this. If so I will happily consider alternative views.

Hillary Clinton is said to be making a speech on Friday acknowledging her defeat and endorsing Obama. The pressure must have finally got to her. If Hillary Clinton were on the ticket with Obama, do you think those racists in Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania would change their minds and vote for him? I don’t. I can’t see her on the ticket at all. Throw her some other kind of bone.

“Truth is beautiful, without doubt, but so are lies.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

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