On Having the Truth
by kyle cupp
I picked a fight with a book the other day. It was a work on ethics. I’ve occasionally taken it off the shelf and scanned a little here and there, but I’ve never devoted much time to actually reading it. I can’t say that engaging the text was my motivation in this instance. Despite my better judgment, I continue to feel a lingering temptation to approach works expressing views different than mine out of a desire to feel good about my own philosophy. And sometimes I succumb. I knew – okay, suspected – that this particular book on ethics presented arguments that I would find laughably poor. I had no intention of being challenged by the authors or even learning something from them. I wanted to revel in my own superiority.
You’d think I’d have learned my lesson. Back in my university days, I started reading the postmodernists and deconstructionists because I knew they were the latest and greatest bad guys, and I wanted to get to know their particular intellectual villainy so that I could heroically refute them. I had the truth. They were relativists who denied the truth. Or so I thought. Reading them turned out to be very unsettling, but this feeling was not due solely to what they said or even how they said it. I felt unsettled because I had heard from trusted lovers of truth that that these writers were enemies hell-bent on destroying the truth, and what I read of them didn’t seem to support this characterization. Suddenly I found myself asking, like Pontius Pilate, “What is the truth?” Hey, a lot can happen when you learn that Jacques Derrida, the dark lord of deconstruction himself, actually affirms justice, forgiveness, and hospitality. A lot can happen when you actually engage a text.
One of my errors here was arrogance. I thought myself smarter than those I set out to read and didn’t think they had anything to teach me. Another error of mine was to think that I had the truth. The expression, “I have the truth” may be benign, but it may also indicate possessiveness toward truth, an approach that reduces truth itself to a subjective and limited understanding of it. When I began to read the words of “the enemy,” I accepted with certainty that I was on the side of truth. No, it was worse than that. Because I looked upon truth as something I possessed, I looked at truth as something smaller than myself. I had the truth, they didn’t.
What I took for the truth was something small indeed. It wasn’t the truth itself, but, at best, my particular and mediated understanding of it. I know of a philosophy professor who told his students, “Don’t call it my philosophy; just call it true philosophy.” I thought the same way. I thought philosophy had more or less answered the fundamental questions of life, the universe, and everything. I thought I had those answers or at least knew where to look them up.
I saw the field of philosophy as a battlefield between those who had the truth and those who didn’t. I believed that I could wield truth as a powerful weapon against those who would war against the tradition. I thought those answers would effectively shield me from the blows of my enemies. This perception was exemplified in a course I took on existentialism, in which the authors we studied were grouped at the outset into the good (theistic) camp and the bad (atheistic) camp. Reading Heidegger in this class proved a very different experience than reading him in another course, in which the objective was to put on our Heidegger hats, enter into his world, and understanding what he was trying to do. Suffice it to say I gained much more from the latter.
These days I tend more toward the thought of Paul Ricoeur than to the postmodernists, though I remain quick to defend them, especially against those who use the term “postmodernism” as a buzzword for bad contemporary philosophy. Ricoeur proposed an approach to truth centered in the hope that all great philosophers are within the bounds of truth, even though all of their philosophies cannot be unified into a systematized whole. He thought the function of this hope lies in always keeping the dialogue open, even in the most bitter of debates. Ricoeur was a master at bringing opposing philosophies into dialogue, but he didn’t try to synthesize them into a coherent whole or dismiss one while affirming the other. He looked for what he could learn from bringing them into communication. He taught that truth is not something to be possessed, but rather pursued, and pursued in a spirit of hope and as a community in dialogue. When we think we possess the truth, we stop pursuing it, and then our contributions to the community come to an end.
I’d like to be able to say that I follow Ricoeur’s approach to texts, but I’m not there yet. I still fall prey to the false certainty that I have the truth and the arrogant presumption that a given philosopher has little to teach me. I probably should stop picking fights with texts. If I don’t, I’ll undoubtedly end up with worse wounds than paper cuts.