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Chapter IV: Truth as a Value—The Intelligible Background

In this lecture, which will be taken up entirely with an investigation bearing upon the question of what we have in mind when we talk about truth, I shall have to refer to the essay by Martin Heidegger, Vom Wesen der Wahrheit. I shall only do so, however, in a rather wary fashion. The largely novel vocabulary of this German philosopher cannot fail to arouse, in many of his readers, a grave uneasiness. In passing, I would like on this topic to remark that when he coins new words, a philosopher is often the victim of an illusion. The strange and surprising impression produced on him by his new word often prevents him from seeing that there is nothing strange or surprising about the thought it expresses. What lies behind the creation of such words is often the shock which the philosopher has felt in rediscovering, on his own account, something that was already discovered long before him. This rediscovery is not discovery, in the proper sense of the word.

It is my own intention, on the other hand, to use, with one or two exceptions, the simplest words I can find. But it will be hard for my listeners, I know, to determine, without a wide margin of uncertainty, the relation between the comparatively everyday language which I shall be using and that of the German philosopher; though the Belgian philosopher, Alphonse de Waehlens, did a great deal to elucidate Heidegger's terminology in his French translation of Heidegger's1 essay which appeared at Louvain in 1948.

One of my pupils observed to me the other day that there is more material in my plays than in my speculative writings that could be used for the working out of a doctrine of truth. And when I had thought it over carefully, I thought his remark basically sound. But if this is so, is it mere chance that it is so? Obviously not. The fact is simply the indirect confirmation of the more general fact that when we set out to speak about truth, as when we set out to speak about God, we are in danger of speaking about something which is not truth, but is merely its simulacrum; here again is that word which played such an important part in our last lecture. We must ask ourselves, then, whether truth is something which can only be alluded to, in a glancing way. The role of the drama, at a certain level, seems to be to place us at a point of vantage at which truth is made concrete to us, far above any level of abstract definitions. Let us see whether this reflection serves, or does not serve, to confirm our preliminary assumptions.

In order to throw more light on the direction of our quest, I should like to insist strongly that what matters for us is to elucidate our own meaning when we say, for instance, that we are guided by the love of truth, or that somebody has sacrificed himself for the truth. Let us ask ourselves what condition, even and perhaps above all what negative condition, such assertions must satisfy if they are to have a meaning. It is obvious at a first glance that a traditional formula, such as ‘truth is the adequation of the thing and the intellect’, whatever its theoretic value may be, is by no means suited to throw light on such assertions. There would be no meaning in saying that somebody had died for the adequation of the thing and the intellect. This in itself serves to show that the idea of truth has a fundamental ambiguity. Let us take it for the present that we are applying ourselves to the consideration of truth in so far as truth is a value; it is only under this aspect that truth can become ‘something at stake’.

I shall start off with a very simple example, and from my point of view a very instructive one. We have all been taught from our earliest years that we must not confuse what we should like to be the case and what is the truth. A great Doctor of the Church has even declared that this confusion is a perversion of the understanding. But, first of all, is there any difference at all here between what is the truth and what simply is? Is it not obvious that what is true is nothing other than what is, what exists, what is the case; from a certain point of view, the difference between them is non-existent. But only from a certain point of view, and more precisely from the perspective of a kind of thinking turned at once towards the object and towards possible action on the object, that is to say, a thinking along the lines of technique. What, then, is the other perspective, within which a distinction between what is true, and what is, must in spite of everything be maintained? On what will it lay its stress? I will quote here an important passage from Bradley in his Essays on Truth and Reality. We shall have to ask ourselves if it throws some light on our problem:

‘Truth is the whole Universe realizing itself in one aspect. This ‘way of realization is one-sided, and it is a way not in the end ‘satisfying even its own demands, but felt by itself to be ‘incomplete. On the other hand the completion of Truth itself is ‘seen to lead to an all-inclusive Reality, which Reality is not ‘outside Truth. For it is the whole Universe which, immanent ‘throughout, realizes and seeks itself in Truth. This is the end ‘to which Truth leads and points, and without which it is not ‘satisfied. And those aspects in which Truth for itself is ‘defective, are precisely those which make the difference between ‘Truth and Reality.’

In other words, Truth distinguishes itself from Reality in the measure in which it is only a single aspect among others, or is unilateral, while Reality is in essence omni-comprehensive.

But, for reasons which will appear more clearly in the sequel, I shall refrain from bringing in, as a solution of this problem that is occupying us, the notion of an omni-comprehensive reality; for though the latter idea dominates all Bradley's thinking, I am afraid it is by no means invulnerable to all criticism. What we should notice here is that the operation of including (and Bradley builds up his Absolute by an hierarchy of inclusions) is one which can only be carried out within the bosom of a relatively, not absolutely, complete system or totality which is then stretched out to gather in the new element that has to be included; more precisely, I would say this method of inclusion is suitable only for a pattern of philosophical thought which is in motion, which is in the process of completing itself. It is obvious that such an inclusive system of thought can only, at any time, be provisionally rounded off; there is always a tension between the system in itself, considered as a whole, and the elements of experience that have still to be absorbed in it. It remains to be shown, and most probably it cannot be shown, that we have the right to pass the ideal limiting case, where nothing more need be absorbed; and that the act of inclusion remains possible or conceivable where the level of thought on the move, let us say of discursive thought, has been transcended, and where we profess to have established ourselves at a point beyond all development.

It seems to me that it would be better to set out on a more modest path, that is to say that of the phenomenologists, and to ask ourselves just what we have in mind when we talk about the difference between being and being true.

One solution presents itself naturally to the mind, which has been adopted by numerous philosophers: it consists of saying that truth has to do exclusively with judgments. A judgment is true or false, but one cannot talk of truth or falsity in the case of a sensation or a sentiment. Sensations and sentiments, in all the judgments we make about them, appear to be merely themselves.

This distinction, however, must be treated with more caution than is commonly thought necessary. For in affirming the self-identity of sensations and sentiments, in saying that within all judgments and for all judgments they are simply what they are, am I not forgetting their real nature? Or rather—for if they had a real nature, it would not be necessary to assert that self-identity—am I not mistaken in supposing that they have a nature in this sense? They are fugitive, they are elusive it may be said, thought cannot fix them, and it is only where thought can fix something that we can properly talk of its having a nature. Obviously, at this point, we are getting rather close to a certain aspect of Platonism: the notion that the world of the senses and feelings is somehow unreal unless it is transformed into a higher world of concepts. However, before we can accept such a position, we have to face a serious difficulty. After all, to take a quite elementary example, a flavour, for instance, does appear to bear witness to the presence of something that has a nature, a self-identity. There must be something there, after all, if there is something that I can talk about. I can say, for instance: I like, or I do not like, the taste of raspberries, the smell of tar. And what testifies to the self-identity of that taste or that smell is that I have only to experience them afresh, after a gap of years, to be carried back into a distant past which is essentially my past. The most we can say is that there is a sense in which I can confidently affirm that my companion and I are talking about the same sensation when we discuss the taste of raspberries, I saying I like it, he that he does not. What, however, makes the question really obscure is that it is almost impossible to distinguish sharply between the kernel of the sensation and the kind of array of emotional overtones that encloses it, and that inevitably varies with each individual because the background of experience as a whole, for each individual, is different. Thus the taste of raspberries may be linked in my case with walks in the Vosges woodlands with people I love, and for somebody else with a house and a garden in the Paris suburbs where he spent his childhood holidays under the care of a bad-tempered grandfather. Yet in principle the distinction between the kernel and its shell remains valid, and the notion of the kernel of sensation retains its theoretic validity. Thus, after all, it does not seem to be quite that sensations and sentiments are always too fugitive to be fixed by thought; or that thought cannot refer to them without transforming them into something other than themselves, something essentially, as sensations and sentiments are not, objective.

But on the other hand we ought to notice that as soon as we admit the existence of this kernel, we admit also the possibility of a certain congruousness between my own grasp of it and another person's; this congruousness cannot be accidental, but it is by no means guaranteed. For instance, I once knew a man who thought raspberries had no taste; there can be a sort of taste-blindness, and the same sort of thing is true over the whole range of possible sensations. There are many people who cannot tell the difference between the great vintages and very ordinary wines. It would be a fallacy to draw negative or even relativist conclusions from such facts. In every realm of sense-experience there are connoisseurs; their gifts are real and cannot be denied without absurdity. Let us add, to round off this argument, that the non-connoisseur is in no position to deny the connoisseur's status; in fact the non-connoisseur ought to recognize his own condition, which is that of being shut off from certain realities. Realities, I say. Could I not say truths? After what seemed a digression, we have come back to our original problem.

It may be objected, indeed, that whether we talk of truths or realities here depends on how we choose to define our terms. But there is an important point that hangs on that ‘how we choose’: whether we seize on this word, or on that word, to fix a real distinction which we have perceived, the distinction must be, as it were, in the long run accepted and sustained by the common idiom of language. The non-connoisseur is keeping within the bounds of truth when he recognizes that he is a non-connoisseur; he is falling outside these bounds when he fails to recognize that fact. But it would be absurd to say that he is falling outside the bounds of reality. Whatever truths he fails to recognize, he himself remains perfectly real. And if he is a conceited man, for instance, his refusal to recognize his deficiency may reflect his real nature excellently well, unless indeed we are using ‘real nature’ in a non-psychological sense—a point which leads us back to a path we have trodden before. What we are aiming at, in fact, when we grope for the idea of truth, is not the kind of rounded and complete positive experience that we might be aiming at if we were groping for the idea of reality. On the contrary, one can be within the bounds of truth and one's reality can be suffering from a denudation, a lack; I am thinking, for instance, of the case of a deaf man who wishes at all costs to take a part in social life, that is, to refuse to adopt the kind of behaviour that seems to go with being deaf, to refuse to draw the usual conclusions from the premise of his infirmity. In a word, this deaf man refuses to shut himself in—he refuses to draw the blinds against a certain kind of light. But what is this light? And where does it come from?… May not this metaphor of light help us to grasp the very essence of what we mean by truth? But I will emphasize, in the first place, that it is more than a metaphor; or if it is one, it is a metaphor woven into the texture of my argument, part of the pattern of the argument, not a mere incidental illustration of a point, as the other metaphors have been which I have used so far, but of which I soon had to rid myself, since, after easing its path for a moment, they soon obstructed the progress of pure thought. Truth can dazzle and wound us as a bright light does when we turn our eyes full on it; and in ordinary language, we speak of men making themselves deliberately blind to the truth, and so on.…

It is nevertheless clear that we should pause at this point to analyse just what we have in mind when we think of truth as light. There would naturally be no sense in imagining, in a grossly realistic fashion, that facts as such throw out a kind of light which is the light of truth. The chief error of the philosophers of the empiricist tradition has been, in fact, a failure to recognize what a confused notion that of a fact is; we may at any moment be forced to treat as a fact, as we have seen only a short time ago, something which is pure absence, like the fact of the non-connoisseur's being shut off from certain realities. But it is time to seek for another illustration of that idea, since the illustration to which one clings too long tends to grow stale.

Let us think of somebody who has decided to enter a religious community, to become a monk. But he has never been clear in his own mind about what causes have led him to this decision. He is on the eve of taking his final vows, there is still time for him to renounce his purpose. It would be essential at such a time that he should ask himself whether his vocation is in fact an authentic one, whether he has really the sense of being called by God to be God's servant. But in fact he dare not ask that question directly, since he is afraid of the answer. In reality, his decision has been taken after a long succession of purely worldly disappointments—perhaps because a woman he loved had deceived him, or because he had failed in a difficult examination; perhaps also because he sees the obscure chance of obtaining, as a monk, the respect of his family, who have so far always thought him incapable of carrying through any design successfully. But all this has obviously nothing to do with a vocation; and before taking an irrevocable step, he ought to open himself to the light. But we are back to our problem: what is this light? Where does it come from? Of the data which I have just enumerated, not one can be regarded as being in itself a source of light. But under what conditions might such a datum become one?

Let us note well, before going further, that the great majority of human beings grope about during their whole lives among these data of their own existence rather as one gropes one's way between heavy chairs and tables in a darkened room. And what is tragic about their condition is that perhaps only because their lives are passed in this shadowy gloom can they bear to live at all. It is just as if their seeing apparatus had become finally adapted to this twilight state: it is not a question of what Ibsen in The Wild Duck calls the ‘life-lie’, it is a state of non-vision which is not, however, a state of quite complete non-awareness. It can also be said that the attention of such people is not directed towards the data of their own existence, that they even make a point of directing it elsewhere, and, indeed, this ‘making a point’ is as it were the hidden spring that makes their lives tick on reasonably bearably. One might express this in another way: all of us tend to secrete and exude a sort of protective covering within which our life goes on.

But to express oneself thus is still to postulate the existence of a light which comes from outside and which it would be possible to intercept. And yet we have seen distinctly that this idea is absurd. It is necessary, however, to see just where its absurdity lies.

It seems to me to consist in the first place in treating what we call fact, whatever that may really be, as if it were something placed outside me, in the sense in which some material body is, in its case, outside my body, and placed, indeed, at a measurable distance from that. It is against this idea of the fact as external to me that we must direct our polemic. We must not hesitate to affirm that the coherence of a fact, of any fact, is conferred on it by the mind that grasps it, by the understanding self. There is therefore every reason to suppose that if this fact, or this collection of data, should possess the strange power of irradiation of which I have spoken, it would be from the understanding self that it had borrowed the power, rather than possessing such a power intrinsically itself: the latter supposition, I repeat, is absurd. But at this point it seems that we are falling into an inextricable confusion. How can I, as an understanding self, shut myself against a light which, as we have just seen, does not come strictly speaking from the facts themselves, but from myself who have conferred upon them this strange power of radiation? If this is the case, we must acknowledge that what we call a fact is only an inert, neutral element, and that everything that really seems to be a relation between my understanding and the facts is really a relation between me and myself. Only at this point we are once more forced to recognize the ambiguity of the term ‘self’, its profound lack, in fact, of self-identity; the self which confers what I shall henceforth call a reverberatory power on facts does not seem to be identical with the self which refuses to let itself be penetrated by that power. But they are both my self.

Yet again, at this juncture, let us beware of being deceived by language. When I speak of a non-coincidence between the self which confers a power and the self which refuses to be penetrated by the power, I do not really mean that I have two selves. As I have already observed, that would be the case only if we were dealing with objects, and in consequence could treat what we are discussing here as a matter of elements that could be labelled and numbered off: this self, that self. But that is just what is obviously impossible. We are forced once more to make a distinction here between the notions of difference and duality, and to protest against everyday language, which, having to do above all with physical objects, inevitably contributes to the confusion of difference with duality. This is not all; we must also beware of interpreting what has been said about the reverberatory power of facts and its source in causal terms. All that I have said needs to be written out again with more care or, if you like, transposed into a key that will leave no room for any misunderstanding.

It might be interesting to go back, for the sake of clarity, to the case of the religious novice which I brought up a short time ago. If we wanted to treat that example adequately, it would have to be in the manner of a novelist; for it would be the novelist's business to make concrete, and to give their proper respective weight to, the various data which I presented in a schematic fashion. But to achieve this the novelist would have to present the surroundings in which such a character has lived, and make clear the exact kind of pressure these surroundings have exercised on him; that is how we would be enabled to understand how in this case a failure or a romantic disappointment, which in somebody else's case might have been incidents hardly worth mentioning, have in this case assumed a tragic importance. How can we apply this with precision to what I have said earlier on in a more abstract fashion about the fact's not being external? It is quite clear that the fact only acquires its value as a fact because it is referred to that living centre, the character in our imaginary novel. Referred, I say: the term ‘represented’, which is generally current in idealist philosophy, is inadequate. It may be that the would-be monk in our story suffered because of realities which he had not managed to represent to himself; these realities had nevertheless become digested into the tissue of his life. Only it is a question here of what I may call a dematerialized digestion, comparable to the allusions to or reminiscences from other poems which a poet may introduce into an original work: a good example is Mr. T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

A question, or rather an objection, can hardly fail at this moment to spring to the reader's mind. I have turned my novice into a character in a novel: but is it not, in fact, only at the level of the work of imagination, such as the novel is, that the totality of facts is really referred to a sort of living centre and thus appears to be, as it were, interiorized? But I reply that the proper function of the novelist consists exclusively of enabling us to get a more distinct grip on that unity which, of course, existed in life before it existed in fiction, and which makes fiction possible. The novelist communicates directly to us something which ordinary conditions of life condemn us merely to glance at. But the novelist is in no sense the inventor of this sort of unity; and the greater a novelist is, the more he gives us the sense that he is not making anything up. I quote Charles Du Bos on Tolstoy's War and Peace: ‘Life would speak thus, if life could speak’. I have no hesitation for my own part in saying that it is through the novelist's power of creation that we can get our best glimpse of what lies behind and under the reverberatory power of facts.

Could it not be said that this power implies the existence of a certain uncompleted structure—a structure essentially uncompleted since its foundations are in space and time? This structure extends on all sides beyond such a direct awareness as the self can have; and that awareness—a point on which we shall expatiate later—is not and cannot be shut in on itself. The less, in fact, we think of the self as a monad, the more we shall emphasize the importance of this uncompleted structure extending beyond the self. We shall also have to acknowledge the intimate affinities that exist between this structure and the body in the ordinary sense of the word, in so far as for the self the body is this body, my body. It is in connection with this structure that the problem of truth can and must be raised; I mean that if we were to do something that cannot be done, and sweep the idea of this structure away the idea of truth would at the same time lose its meaning. We have now reached a central point in our investigation. But perhaps it will not be unprofitable to recur here to the traditional notion of the relation between truth and judgment and to see how it looks in the light of the preceding explanations.

Let us first of all notice that from this point of view, what I have called ‘fact’ can be regarded as a property of our postulated structure; it is in some sense integrated into the structure, and it is for this reason that it can become radiant—always allowing, as we have seen, that the self disposes itself in relation to the radiant fact so as to receive the light that streams from it. I have already had occasion to remark how much we are in danger of being misled by the use of verbs like ‘receive’ in such a connection. The difficulties, indeed, that have accumulated round the notion of truth are in a large part due to the embarrassment we feel when we seek to define this essential act of the ‘reception’ of truth. Let us say in a very general way that at this level the contrast between activity and passivity—between reception, say, considered as taking, and reception considered as being given something—loses a great deal of its meaning; in the dimension in which we now find ourselves, we must move beyond such categories.

Once again I shall choose an illustration that will enable us to see exactly what the place of judgment is. Think of a mother and lather who, after deceiving themselves for a long time about their son, are forced to admit that he is abnormal; so far, in every particular case, they have made an effort to find explanations for his behaviour that would allow them to believe that, fundamentally, he is just ‘like other children’. But there comes a moment when they are brought face to face with the painful truth. When we say that somebody is forced to ‘face’ the truth, the expression we use is extraordinarily full of meaning, and it is important to bring out all its implications. It is obvious that the notion of ‘facing’ the truth implies a kind of activity; we talk, for instance, about people having the courage to face the truth. But nobody will admit that courage can be anything else but active: and this is true, of course, even of the courage which consists of bearing some misfortune patiently. But at the same time—and it is here the paradox lies—the idea of courage is intimately linked to that of ‘having no alternative’, an idea which, if it were presented in isolation, would be equivalent to an idea of mere and pure constraint. The mother and father, for instance, in the illustration I have just given, ‘have no alternative but to…’ But if the parents, in this case, are obliged to recognize their child's deficiency, do not let us forget that an obligation is always something which can be evaded to some degree. I would recall to you the character Rose Deeprose, in Sheila Kaye-Smith's fine novel of that name, who refuses to the last to admit that her child is an idiot, since, if she did make this admission, she would be obliged to put the child in an institution. In extreme cases, we are forced to ask ourselves—but it is a point on which psychiatrists would be able to enlighten us—whether what we call madness may not be, in some instances, a sort of flight from necessity.

The truth is that an obligation is something that always ought to be recognized, and that this recognition is an act. But on the other hand it does not look as if an act of this sort can ever be what is properly called a spontaneous act. It is necessary, one might say, that the facts should exercise a sort of dumb pressure on the self which will force the self, if I may put it so, to recognize the obligation which lies upon it to recognize the facts themselves.…

There is thus an extremely subtle reciprocal interlinking between facts and self that comes into existence every time we recognize a mortifying truth. And obviously I am far from claiming that every truth has necessarily a mortifying character; but for the purposes of this analysis it is interesting to concentrate on truths of this sort, if only because it is in such cases that it is most difficult to understand how truth can be loved.

But there is one obvious point that can be made here; it is that after I have shirked for a long time the recognition of a painful truth, I can find a real consolation in opening my mind to it; the essential quality of this consolation lies in the fact that, by opening my mind to the truth that hurts me, I have put an end to a long and exhausting inner struggle. But what sort of struggle was it? Let us recall some points we have previously made. We cannot properly talk of a struggle against the facts; for let me repeat it, the facts have no existence or power that is intrinsic to themselves; we ought to talk, rather of a struggle against oneself. Here again we find that ambiguity in the notion of the self which I have so often remarked on: the self that is all desire has been fighting against what I shall from now on call the spirit of truth.

But what is it in the self that feels this consolation, this sense of liberation, which is certainly felt when a painful truth has been recognized? Can we think of this spirit of truth as itself capable of feeling joy—or of feeling pain? And on the other hand is it not a contradiction in terms that the desiring self, which has in a sense been conquered in the battle, should feel a strange satisfaction in its own defeat? Must we at this point insert some third, mediating term—shall we speak of a self which is neither the desiring self nor the spirit of truth? But who can fail to recognize that this dissociation within the self is artificial and that we cannot isolate, in order to transform them into distinct entities, the various aspects of a single life, which is, precisely, the life of one self? What we have to grasp—and we can only succeed in doing so by exorcizing every deceptive metaphor—is that, in the light of truth, I succeed in diminishing that permanent temptation that assails me to conceive reality, or to represent it to myself, as I should like it to be. In the light of truth, in the presence of truth; it is just—however obscure this may seem—as if this truth possessed a stimulating power, as if it were able to purify me, as a sea wind can or the piney tang of the forests. But these are only comparisons and they cannot really help us. The essential question remains and it obviously has a dominating part to play in this dark and difficult investigation. It is this: has truth a substance that is proper to it? Are we in the right in considering it, as our most recent metaphors have suggested, as a distinct power which can be given or lent to us in exchange for the difficult and praiseworthy act of opening ourselves to it? It is very clear that if this were the case we should grasp much more clearly than we have so far succeeded in doing, just how it is possible to love truth, and even to sacrifice oneself for truth. But after all, if we conceive truth in this way, are we not falling into a sort of mythology, and in our recent investigations into the idea of a structure have we not prepared ourselves to form a wholly different idea of truth—an idea of truth as strictly immanent?

However, this is just the moment to remind ourselves of what we said earlier about the impossibility of accepting, in these lectures, the opposition between the ideas of the immanent and the transcendent in its elementary form. It follows that there may perhaps be no absolute contradition between the two aspects of truth with which we are here confronted.

Heidegger, in that essay to which I alluded at the beginning of this lecture, has emphasized the importance of the notion of openness for any theory of truth—or the notion perhaps of being opened. His German word is ‘Offenständigkeit’, and the French translators have coined ‘apérité’ as an equivalent. What he is really trying to do is to find a basis in possibility for that adequation of the mind and the thing which constitutes a true judgment as such. Here is a piece of metal: I describe it correctly when I say that such is its shape, such its colour, such its market value, and so on. Allowing that my description is an exact one, the meaning of ‘exactness’ in this sense is just what Heidegger is out to define. A judgment about a thing, in so far as it is an adequate judgment, establishes in regard to the thing the particular relation that can be expressed by the formula: suchthat… (It is such a thing that it has certain qualities, it is such an X that it is also a Y.) The essence of this relation is what Heidegger calls, not representation, but appresentation. To appresent is ‘to allow the thing to surge up before us in the guise of this or that object, but in such a fashion that the judgment lets itself be led by the thing and expresses it just as it has presented itself. It is a necessary condition of all appresentation that the appresentating being should be placed in the middle of a light that will allow something to appear to that being, be to made manifest to it. This “something” must span or traverse a domain open to our encounter’.

The fundamental agreement between these views and those that I have been previously expounding should be obvious. What we have still to discover is whether our explanations meet the whole case, and whether they enable us to make a definitive judgment on the possibility of treating truth as an effective power. We must be wary here, since we are exposed to the old danger of creating fictitious entities out of phrases. It is all too clear on the basis of my assumption that there is something called the love of truth, that I shall be tempted to give it the status of an entity: I may try to link up the love of truth in my mind, for instance, with the love of God. There is a whole theological background there, that is likely to affect our thinking without our wanting it to and without our even being distinctly aware that it is doing so; and we should be very wary of its intrusions. I do not say that, after a long divagation, we may not have to rediscover this background in the end. But would it not be very rash, for instance, to—attribute to the love of truth, as it exists in the ordinary learned man, a religious character?

On the one hand, it seems pretty certain that the learned man—I am thinking particularly of the scientists, with the possible exception of the mathematical scientist—does postulate the identity of what is and what is true; his task really is, in fact, to discover what is, what is the case, for instance what is the constitution of matter. But, on the other hand, though truth and being are identical for him from that point of view, is his love of truth really a love of being? Does not the love of being always have a note about it of reverence? Is it not a love of what is created in so far as that is the veiled expression, or the token, of the presence of the creator? It would, I think, be quite arbitrary to attribute to scientists and learned men generally a reverent attitude of this sort; one would have to admit that if this attitude does exist in most scientists, not only are they not aware of it, but, more often than not, it is in opposition with their professed beliefs, or rather non-beliefs. It seems to me that in the scientist's own eyes his love for truth can be reduced to a passionate interest in research as such, and also, as a rather more remote consideration, an unbounded confidence in the social utility of research. Let us suppose, however—and unfortunately in our world today no supposition is more plausible—that the scientist is called upon by the State or the Party to deny or renounce some conclusion to which his researches have led him; let us suppose that he refuses and risks being sent to a concentration camp; what exactly will be the mainspring of the heroic stand he is taking? There we have the problem that has been worrying us all along, stated as concretely as can be. The problem is harder to solve in this case because there is something, most probably, in the structure of the scientist's mind (as a non-philosopher's, a non-believer's mind) that prevents him from asking himself this question; reflection in our sense of the word is something deeply alien to him. As philosophers, or students of philosophy, we are in danger of solving his problem for him by bringing in something which runs against the very grain of his mind.

What he refuses to do is to recant. But what exactly are we to understand by that? A superficial mind will say that this is a mere matter of self-respect, or even of pride, though no doubt proper pride; if he were to recant, he would be humiliating himself. But this is certainly a false interpretation, by which I mean that it is not true to the scientist's own experience. For him, it is not himself that is at stake, but truth: the truth of which he is an interpreter and to which in a certain sense he bears witness. If he were to recant, he would be perjuring himself. But it is just the nature of this treason that he shrinks from, that we must make clear. He would be betraying truth; but, or so it would seem, we can only betray a person; is truth a person, can it be compared to a person? We do talk indeed of sinning against the light, but has this any meaning outside that world of religious experience, which we wish, as I have said, to exclude for the moment from our discussion?

Ought we not to recur here to one of the deepest notions of the Californian philosopher, Josiah Royce, and to say that the man who is engaged in the search for truth enters into an ideal community? He becomes a citizen of a city that is not built with stones and that is cemented only with thought. But is it not against this city that the scientist is committing a treason when, out of fear or out of self-interest, he recants the conclusions that he reached in the days when he served truth loyally?

That conclusion cannot be lightly set aside; it will obtain the support of many thinkers who have little taste for metaphysics as such. Nevertheless, I think it takes us only half-way to the truth. The notion of this ideal city is only a halt, or a ledge, on a steep, stony mountain path that must lead us much further on. For we are still left with the problem of how such a city is possible and what are its foundations. Is it not the main note of this city that it has been constructed with truth in mind and for the purposes of truth? But that leaves the whole problem where it was. It may be, however, that if we can once more probe through mere words and images, this notion of an ideal city will help us upwards on the path towards a more distinct conception than we have yet obtained of our destination.

What are we to understand by an ideal city? Let us put aside every characteristic that belongs specifically to a material city. What remains is the idea of a place where people live together and where exchanges of goods and services of all sorts take place. Certainly, when we talk of such exchanges, we evoke once more an image of physical transactions. I bring along some banknotes and I buy an object which has a stated price. But, after all, there are other exchanges of an infinitely more subtle kind. I go into a museum, for instance, and I bring with me a certain number of ideas, or rather a preliminary grounding of experience, which enables me to understand, or rather to appreciate, works of art that might otherwise have left me indifferent. It may be objected that it is improper to speak of an exchange in this instance, since I ‘give’ nothing to the work of art; but that is only true from a grossly material point of view. There is a deeper sense in which one can say that the work is enriched by the admiration it inspires and that it undergoes, in a sense, a real growth and development. This mysterious phenomenon—which cannot, of course, leave any palpable traces—belongs, in a way, to the ideal city. Let us notice, in passing, that a town, when it deserves the name of a town, and is not a mere juxtaposition of buildings, has itself something of the function of the museum; it offers spiritual nourishment to those who live in it, and they in their turn help on the growth of what one might call its spiritual substance.

Let us see how these very simple remarks can throw some light on the notion of the ideal city itself and on its connections with the notion of truth.

As always, we have been tempted to cling to a physical representation. Just as the city of stone or wood is laid out to get the best light available, so we have imagined the ideal city as constructed in such a fashion that it can be illuminated by a truth that is external to it. But the relationship is not the same in both cases; where the city of stone or wood seems to have a prior existence in itself without the light being a necessary constituent part of that existence, the ideal city, as we have glimpsed, does draw its very existence from that other light which is truth. This certainly gives us only a very abstract and general grasp of what we are talking about, but it is enough to show how impossible it would be to represent the ideal city in an objective fashion. The best image, indeed, that we can here evoke that city by, is the simple one of a discussion about ideas in which both the conversationalists are so interested in their topic that each forgets about himself, which is to say, really, about the personal impression he is making on the other; for the tiniest touch of self-complacency would lower the tone of the discussion. The very soul of such discussions is the joy of communicating, not necessarily the joy of finding that one's views agree with another's; and this distinction between communication and agreement has great importance. It is just as if two climbers were tackling the same hill, up different approaches; allowing that the climbers can communicate directly with each other, at any moment, through portable radio or television sets.

But there is something paradoxical in this situation, even when our imagination has grasped it properly. Truth is at once what the two conversationalists, or the two climbers, are aware of striving towards—and it is also what pushes them up their hill; which is to say that it is at once in front of them and behind them, or rather that, at this level of discourse, this spatial contrast has no reality.

Has all this brought us nearer to the discovery of what truth is? My reflections on what I have called the ideal city, or merely on what is involved in the notion of a sincere discussion between two persons, should lead us to acknowledge, it seems to me, that when we talk of truth—just because we are talking of it—we run a grave risk of placing ourselves just at the most unfavourable standpoint for grasping what truth may be. You will notice that in the illustrations which have taken up so much of this lecture I have always been anxious to flow in the direction of a sort of current, without asking myself precisely what the current is, what are its characteristics, for instance whether it is a continuous current—as Bergson seems to have thought, who in this instance does seem to me to have taken a large leap beyond the given facts of experience. And this notion of a ‘current’, taken in isolation, does not seem to me a completely satisfactory notion. What I mean is that I have been dealing with thought in so far as thought is committed to some task or other, and I have not been asking myself exactly how thought gets such tasks suggested to it. But all this comes down to saying that to me it does not appear permissible to isolate a judgment and to ask what truth is in relation to that judgment. We have been led in this lecture, and we shall be led more and more in subsequent lectures, to give weight to the idea of a sort of intercourse, which can take place both between distinct personalities and within what we call the same personality. This will become clearer later on, when we shall have to define the specific characteristics of intersubjectivity. We have already got a glimpse, however, of the fact that all intercourse takes place against what I would call a kind of intelligible background; there would be everything to lose if we were tempted to transform this notion of an intelligible background into the image of a material background; though that temptation is, in our case, with us all the time. But though this notion of an intelligible background, or setting, is still a misty one, does it not permit us to give a certain body of meaning to the phrase ‘within the bounds of truth’ which we used earlier in this lecture? Even more, might we not have a basis for supposing that what we call the love of truth may be a sort of mysterious joy in moving against this intelligible background, within this intelligible setting? Though the joy certainly is a precarious and threatened one.

For if it is the case that we have access to this region only under rather difficult conditions, and under conditions on which we cannot concentrate our attention too firmly, we can certainly not say that we are ‘native to the place’, that we naturally belong there. This intelligible region is not our natal soil. It is not so, at least, unless we can conceive a double mode of belonging, or unless, in a quite different fashion, we can think of ourselves, as Plato did, as linked to this region by mysterious threads of reminiscence. But at a first glance we have to admit that this is a strange notion, and that we cannot yet attribute to it anything more than a negative content; we see what it is not, much rather than grasp what it is.

We are thus led to the world we do naturally belong to, the world of our sense experiences, the world that constitutes us as existing creatures. And it is only very much later that we shall be able to return to the difficult notions which, towards the end of this lecture, had begun to beckon us with a distant gleam.

  • 1.

    De L'Essence de la Verité, par M. Heidegger, Louvain, 1948.