Definitions of Truth: Comparative Analysis of Views of Martin Heidegger, A.J. Ayer, and William James
What is the truth? Is there an adequate concept to define the truth? Many would be tempted to say that the truth is what corresponds to the facts, but perhaps doesn’t this depend on the level of knowledge of people, the moment, the environment, and even religion? How long was it true that the earth was flat? Joseph Goebbels said that a lie properly repeated a thousand times becomes a truth. So, is the truth changing?
The truth can refer to a proposition or a reality. A proposition is true when it is not false and reality is true when it is not apparent, illusory, unreal, or non-existent. But what does this mean? Initially, the first philosophers sought truth against falsehood, illusion, and appearance. In this case, the truth and reality were identical, and reality was considered identical to what it is. But throughout history and more towards contemporary philosophy, this changed. Philosophers like Martin Heidegger, A.J. Ayer, and William James formulated theories that presented different definitions of truth. The objective of this essay is to analyze the theories of these three philosophers to determine which of them presents a better description of the truth.
The truth for Martin Heidegger does not mean, in the traditional way, ‘veritas.’ That traditional truth that is stated as the conformity of the proposition with the thing is totally rejected. Heidegger argues that for us to access that truth, there must be (and there is) a pre-opening to the entity; this means that there is a set of pre-knowledge and/or prejudices. The concept in which Heidegger fixes his interest is in the Greek term “Alethia”. This term refers to the truth being equated with revelation, concealment, or more specific, ‘with the state of not being hidden.’ Heidegger, in his work of Being and Time, introduced this term in the existential analysis of Dasein (human condition), in which he makes the distinction between a properly inauthentic existence as opposed to an authentic existence. It is there, where Heidegger causes the truth to lose its privative character and is presented later as a rectitude of the statement.
On the other hand, A. J. Ayer in Logical Positivism presents the Principle of Verifiability. This principle aims to be a norm to distinguish meaningful propositions from those that tell us nothing or are simply absurd. For Ayer, a sentence makes sense, if whoever says it can verify its statement. To explain its principle, Ayer makes a first distinction within the criteria of verifiability by differentiating between practical verifiability and verifiability in principle. For him, if a proposition can provide the real observations that determine its truth or falsehood, that proposition is verifiable in practice. While, if it is known what possible observations would decide on the truth or falsity of a given proposition, the proposition is verifiable in principle. The principle of verifiability can be weak or strong depending on whether the conclusion can be established by experience or not. However, according to Ayer, all propositions that have factual content are empirical hypotheses, whose function is to provide a standard for the anticipation of an experience.
Finally, William James, one of the pioneers of pragmatism, considers that truth is not an inherent and immutable property of the idea, but that it is an occurrence in the idea according to its verifiability. In this sense, the verifiability for James consists of a pleasant feeling of harmony and progress in the succession of ideas and facts. Sequentially, having such ideas, each of them follows another and adapts to each event of the experienced reality. In turn, these true ideas fulfill a fundamental function: being useful tools for the individual, so that he/she can use them to guide himself/herself. James defended a humanistic and practical conception of the truth, rooted in human experience and indexed in the available evidence. To explain his argument, James distinguished between two ways of knowing things: intuitively or through an external chain of physical or mental intermediaries that connect thought and thing. The version of William James is summarized in that the “true” is only the resource in our way of thinking, just as the “right” is only the resource in the way we behave. By this, James meant that truth is a quality whose value is confirmed by its effectiveness in applying concepts to actual practice.
In short, it can be said that the truth is then for a man to discover in himself what he thinks things are. Although the three philosophers present elements that could be valid in certain circumstances, in my opinion, William James is the one who does it more accurately. Heidegger and Ayer use the criteria of existence and verifiability as key elements of the truth. The Apostle Thomas would have described it as “see to believe” (John 20: 24-29). For Heidegger, the truth is the adaptation of the intellect with the thing, it is the discovery, the element of existence, which occurs in the phenomenon of being in the world that is proper to the existence, the revelation of existence. On the other hand, Ayer, with its principle of verifiability, argues that a sentence makes sense, if whoever says it can verify its statement. This criterion seems to present the truth as an isolated element. In that sense, the version of William James is more accurate. He presents ‘truth’ as a resource in our thinking, just as ‘right’ is just the resource in our way of behaving. James shows how truth can evolve, by associating it with a succession of events: ideas that follow each other. It even admits that it will be indexed to the available evidence, presiding, if necessary, the verification criteria. This harmonizes it with the idea of progress.
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