Symbolising truth

I thought it would be good to follow up my recent essay on scepticism (which points out that we have no access to truth) with some positive comments about truth as a symbol. I was also particularly moved recently by finding this picture in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It is an anonymous picture, dated about 1620-30, called ‘Truth presenting a mirror to the vanities of the world’.

(c) The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Artistic depictions of Truth as an allegorical figure are interesting. They are overwhelmingly female, and sometimes naked (obviously reflecting the idea of ‘disclosure’). This Truth, on the other hand, is sumptuously robed and dignified. Her expression seems appropriately severe. The use of a mirror to symbolise truth is widespread, and can be interpreted both as an indication that we should confront uncomfortable facts about ourselves, and also that we should look at our own role in creating the ‘truths’ we believe in. The skull is obviously a reminder of the ‘truth’ of impermanence and death, that we may often fail to face up to. What I found particularly striking here, though, is that Truth is also holding up a pair of scales. That suggests a particular emphasis on the need to balance our judgements in order to get closer to truth, a direct suggestion of the Middle Way as well as related philosophical ideas such as that of ‘reflective equilibrium’. From the Middle Way point of view, positive or negative metaphysical extremes would distort the scales either way, preventing the much more subtle balancing of the scales required to make judgements in experience.

As a sceptic, I don’t believe that we can have access to truth (and saying this is not itself a truth-claim but rather just facing up to our embodiment and inability to be God). However, that doesn’t in any way prevent us from imagining and symbolising truth. Indeed, maintaining truth as an ideal, and relating to it positively, seems to me an important process. There is no contradiction here. We can, at one and the same time, honour or even worship truth, whilst recognising our inability to access it. Indeed, at a more profound level it is our very commitment to truth as an ideal that drives us to recognise that we do not have it. That commitment (or faith) in truth does not consist in propositions about truth that are claimed to be true (or false), but in the meaningfulness of truth to me. I may have all sorts of neural connections that enable me to respond to ideas of truth, these being linked into embodied experience and activity in all sorts of ways, but none of these are so entrenched (I hope) that they result in claims that such-and-such is formally true.

The embodied nature of what truth can mean for us is evident in this picture, as all the ways that truth is depicted are not about ‘the truth’ itself, but rather about ways that we need to face up to conditions that we are resistant to. The scales, as I have already mentioned, are a more directly embodied metaphor for the judgement process. The mirror and skull are directly associated with often unwelcome recognitions of the imperfection of our bodies. But the woman herself is also an embodiment of truth rather than an abstraction from it, and can remind us of some facets of the meaning of truth for us: dignified, restrained, and slightly severe.

‘Truth’ has sometimes been relativised by pragmatic philosophers (such as Nietzsche and William James), who would talk about ‘our truth’ rather than ‘the truth itself’. This does reflect ordinary informal usage, where I’m quite happy to admit that the phrase ‘That’s true’ does sometimes cross my lips, meaning ‘that accords with my experience and understanding’. But in my view truth has too much dignity – is too sacred, if you like – to be treated in this way on the more formal occasions when we talk or write more reflectively about it. It’s only because we find truth meaningful in this way, and preserve its symbolic absoluteness, that we are able to be sceptical when it comes to truth claims. Indeed, it seems to me that sceptics are the people who find truth most meaningful, at the same time as recognising fully that they have never met with her in person.

The metaphor of ‘truth as a woman’ was famously developed by Nietzsche at the beginning of his ‘Beyond Good and Evil’:

Supposing truth to be a woman – what? is the suspicion not well founded that all philosophers, when they have been dogmatists, have little understanding of women? that the gruesome earnestness, the clumsy importunity with which they have been in the habit of approaching truth have been inept and improper means for winning a wench? Certainly she has not let herself be won – and today every kind of dogmatism stands sad and discouraged.

An attractively embodied point of view, though obviously a very male one. ‘Clumsy importunity’, though, seems quite an appropriate metaphor for how many people, male or female, treat truth. They completely misjudge her, thinking she’s like them and can easily be made part of the group. Beyond that, however, perhaps we shouldn’t push Nietzsche’s analogy too far. It is not so much Truth that has not let herself be won, but rather us who are incapable of winning her.

Some of the ‘dogmatic philosophers’ attacked by Nietzsche for importuning truth have more recently taken to more indirect, hypothetical appeals to her. The truth-dependent theory of meaning widely accepted in analytic philosophy is something like a fake cheque supposedly drawing on Truth’s bank account. We’re told that a certain claim is meaningful because we understand the circumstances in which it would be true – even though, in practice, we have never experienced and never could experience an occasion when we know anything to be true. If we were ever to pay in the cheque, rather than just passing it round as a medium of exchange, payment would be refused, because Truth does not let her account be drawn on in such a way. Hypothetical appeals to truth in practice have nothing stronger than convention to draw on.

As a symbol, Truth can also be understood as another version of the God archetype recognised by Jung. If the archetypal God in our experience is a forward projection of the possibility of our integration, Truth is very much the same, for the outward process of removing delusive barriers reflects the inner one of removing conflict: in both cases it is absolutisations that stand in our way. Just as those who really have respect for truth should not claim to possess it, similarly those who really have respect for God should not claim to be in possession of revelations that reflect God’s will.

The acceptance of truth as meaningful at the same time as recognising that we don’t possess it is a difficult balancing act, but, I think, a crucial aspect of the Middle Way. There are lots of judgement calls as to where the boundaries between truth-claim and truth-meaning lie, and different people may disagree on exactly where they lie in different cases. But if you want to practise the Middle Way, I think it is the overall balancing intention that is important here. Not getting sucked into claims about truth or falsity requires resolution on the one hand, but respect for truth as a symbol of what is out there may be equally important.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

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