WHILE DEBATE ABOUT “TRUTH” SEEMS TO DOMINATE PUBLIC DISCOURSE LATELY, THIS IS NOTHING NEW: SCHOLARS AND THINKERS HAVE BEEN WRESTLING WITH CONCEPTS OF TRUTH SINCE ANCIENT TIMES.
For Bruins, including the humanities faculty we’ve quoted in this issue, the pursuit of truth is a fundamentally social process. Any claim is subject to testing, refinement and occasionally flat-out debunking. We seek truth like connoisseurs – passionate and ever wary of shoddy substitutes.
Whoever you are and wherever you come from, when you step onto the UCLA campus, you’re invited to speak your own ideas, to defend them through the peaceful exercise of good thinking, to answer critiques, perhaps to change a mind, perhaps to change the world.
We know that books alone won’t preserve or defend truths. For that we need the willing, critical engagement of young and diverse thinkers who will take on the pursuit of truth as a project for their own time.
Little wonder that UCLA’s early leaders thought to inscribe iconic Royce Hall with Josiah Royce’s observation: “The world is a progressively realized community of interpretation.”
This world belongs to you.
– David Schaberg, Dean of Humanities
As an archaeologist, I am focused on how to understand the past from the material things we leave behind, I have always been careful with using the term “objective” and certainly the term “truth”. I would shudder when colleagues used these words freely and, in my opinion, naively. Yet, for the past two years, I have landed in a philosophical crisis and, in spite of my well-founded reservations, I now feel that it is important to recognize that there is a basis on which we can decide what is true and what is not. People in history were as divided and opinionated as we are, but we recognize that events in the past happened, and we base that on facts we discover in archaeological or historical sources. Evidence can be debated, but should never be disregarded, warped, or denied. Civilized human society is founded on an informed and tolerant discussion. It is rooted in the weighing of information that can be checked independently. Throwing out all rules of debate in exchange for personal or political gain is unethical and potentially dangerous. Rendering intellectual, fact-based criticism as suspicious and those who wield it as enemies, is the pursuit of tyrants. We need to bring the grand narratives of oppression, inequality, injustice, and even just the stories of inattentiveness and lack of empathy, under the attention of those who have forgotten the past, or consider it unimportant. History does not repeat itself, but historical events allow us to analyze where human behavior has serious negative consequences. We do not have to agree, as long as we keep listening.
Director, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA
Joan Silsbee Chair of African Cultural Archaeology
Prof. Egyptian Archaeology and Digital Humanities
|COMPARATIVE LITERATURE, ENGLISH, AND FRENCH AND FRANCOPHONE STUDIES|
I open my undergraduate Comparative Literature 100 class on “Truth and Simulation” with Nietzsche’s provocation: “What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors…. Truths are illusions about which it has been forgotten that they are illusions, worn-out metaphors without sensory impact, coins which have lost their image and now can be used only as metal, and no longer as coins.” Most of the modern Continental philosophical tradition I study follows Nietzsche (and Freud and Marx) in questioning the reliability of our perception of truth and suggesting that other forces are at work. Michel Foucault writes of “games” and “regimes” of truth, or the idea that what we consider true is a function of current power structures. Gilles Deleuze goes so far as to invert Plato’s attack on artists as second order simulators of truth and affirm the “powers of the false.” More recently, Alain Badiou has refreshingly tried to salvage Plato and a strong model of truth from this lineage of detractors. My own sense is that Medieval philosophy produced perhaps the most interesting commentaries on the difficulties of understanding truth in relation to falsity, which is to say that these questions are far from new to our era.
Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French and Francophone Studies
Truth is a value, a relation, and a mystery. It is not the only thing that as thinkers we seek; there is, after all, understanding, but without it the rest is, well, phony.
Truth is a value because it is kind of rightness. Just as we act rightly so we can believe and speak rightly. True beliefs and true declarations meet a standard. Just as true friends are those who adjust their actions to the standards for friendship so to count as believing and not just wishful thinking a state of mind has to aim at truth—which is why for me to say that of something that it is true but I don’t believe it would be met with an incredulous stare. To speak and think without even aiming at truth is at best to speak and think bullshit.
Thoughts and claims are true only if they relate to the world by representing it correctly but that is not always enough. Truth is so elusive that a theory from which every truth followed would contradict itself and so mysterious that some religions have identified it with God. And that is just the beginning.
Brian P. Copenhaver Chair
|FRENCH AND FRANCOPHONE STUDIES|
In our era where scientists challenge the Cartesian mind/body duality, our mission as a university cannot simply seek to educate the mind separate from the whole person. Truth is not limited to something knowable through the mind alone — abstract, disembodied concepts and things that exist out in the world, objectively measurable and verifiable. The body, heart and soul must also be contacted and cultivated. This is why the Humanities are so important. The kinds of truth that humanists cultivate touch the whole human being. They are inner truths to which personal stories give us access. Stories are the data of the soul. They cultivate qualities of empathy for others by bringing their experiences close inside the heart, our inner knowing.
Stories teach an embodied form of knowing, underlining that the content of any truth depends on HOW we know and express it, embodied in language. HOW we know a truth, HOW we frame it, shapes what we know and can’t know.
As the lens of our HOW keeps shifting, we come to realize one of the most profound truths at the center of a humanist education: the ambiguous nature of all truth. As much as we long to grasp on to one fixed, certain principle, the ground always shifts beneath us, leaving uncertainty in its place. A Humanist education teaches us to value the nature of ambiguity and uncertainty as the ground of our being. Scientists, doctors, engineers are now looking more and more to humanists because they realize that their values and modes of knowing are a crucial complement to their own.
Sara E. Melzer
Professor, French and Francophone Studies
Truth is of central importance in philosophy as a discipline. In a sense it’s all we care about. Where some say “truth be damned,” we say “everything else be damned.
If I say “The bird is on the wire” and you say, of the same bird at the same time and place, “The bird is not on the wire,” these are not alternative facts from which we may freely choose. For a statement to refer to a fact, the statement has to be true, and these cannot both be true.
But when statements contradict each other, or are inconsistent with each other, they are not two alternative facts; one is true and the other is false.
The phrase “my truth” is often used to refer to claims whose truth is more accessible to me, or important to me, than it is to someone else. Fair enough, but if it is a truth, then it is the case, and suggesting that I possess that seems like an affectation. What I may possess and you may not is belief about or knowledge of the truth. I think we would find less need to torture the word “truth” if we paid more attention to the concepts of belief and knowledge.
If we care about the truth, we should instead respond to assertions by asking “How do you know?” or “What are your reasons?” It is a strong disciplinary norm in philosophy that we assume the other person has reasons for their beliefs. It’s not that we’re naïve; we know it’s always possible that a person is rationalizing or motivated by self-interest, or has been led along by the crowd or tribal loyalty, but if we started a conversation by assuming any of those things about our interlocutor, we would be assuming we have nothing to learn from them. The philosopher isn’t cynical enough to think we know that.
We Classicists have been studying Greco-Roman antiquity for the better part of two millennia, always learning from our predecessors even as we seek to surpass them in understanding the rich and yet problematic legacy of these increasingly distant cultures. Sometimes we make new discoveries—new texts or new objects come to light or new tools expand our knowledge of old texts and old objects—but even when the factual record remains unchanged, we change, and with changes in us come new perspectives, new insights, new problems, and new questions to explore. So where does truth enter the scene? It entices us there on the frontier between fact and interpretation and is as much a function of how we do our work as of what we discover while doing it. Whether we focus on the written record or the material record, we strive for honesty in representing what is entrusted to us and combine that honesty with a humility that comes from knowing beyond all doubt that whatever we believe, whatever we claim, whatever we know, the next generation will surely say, “That’s not good enough! We need to know more and we need to know better!” And that’s the truth.
Sander M. Goldberg
Distinguished Research Professor
Department of Classics
Cento*: On Truth in Poetry
My favourite poem is the one that starts
‘Thirty days hath September’
because it actually tells you something
Poetry is seen as the furthest thing from fact
because of the way people encountered
poetry when they were young
not as work that clarified and illuminated
but that had to be deciphered and explained
Experience, in a work of art, may be rendered
most truthfully by attending to something beyond
the verifiable fact. Subjectivity may be
as severe and demanding a discipline
as objectivity. The real work of the poem
is the education of the emotions
Poems are like dreams: in them you put
what you don’t know you know
They are roadmaps of our humanity
Nothing is too wonderful to be true
Lecturer, UCLA Writing Programs
Assistant Director, UCLA Undergraduate Writing Center
*Sources: Groucho Marx (lines 1-3), Kwame Dawes (4-8), David Yezzi (9-11), Alicia Ostriker (11-13), David Yezzi (13-14), Adrienne Rich (15-16), David Yezzi (17), Michael Faraday (18)