Appendix 08: Truth in Perspective

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

The relativist's denial of absolute truth is often grounded on the supposition that the very idea of an absolute and objective truth is incompatible with the facts of subjectivity, in other words, with the fact that human beings see things from a limited, particular, and even biased perspective. Since each one of us sees the world from our own particular point of view, how can any one of us claim to be in possession of absolute truth? The basic idea behind the denial of absolute truth seems to be that objectivity can only be had on condition that subjectivity is eliminated, and since one cannot eliminate subjectivity (the mind) and all that it implies (limitations), one cannot possess absolute and objective truth. To claim otherwise would amount to nothing less than arrogance.

On the other hand, if it is only through a knowing subject that something becomes an "object" of knowledge, then perhaps subjectivity is the condition for the possibility of "objectivity". For example, consider a world without persons, that is, intelligent subjects capable of knowing things outside themselves. Instead, only inanimate things and, let's say, plant life exist. In such a world, there would be no "objects" as such, only existing things. An object is the correlative of a subject. An apple is not an object for another apple or a rose bush, and a rock is not an object for a tree, etc. These become objects of knowledge in relation to a knower, for a knower is the subject who knows beings outside of himself. What he knows become the objects of his knowledge.

What this suggests is that there is no incompatibility between having a limited perspective and possessing absolute truth. More specifically, there is no absolute and objective truth without a subject who sees and knows the world from a limited and particular perspective. And far from keeping me from an objective apprehension of the real, perhaps my biases are just what I need to open me up onto the absolute and objective. Allow me to explore this further.

The Intuition of Being and First Principles

Firstly, it is not possible to deny the existence of absolute truth without implying it. For if there is no objective and absolute truth, then it is objectively and absolutely true and we ought not to deny it; for we ought not to deny what is in fact true. But if there is no absolute truth, there is no need to worry about denying what in fact ought not to be denied, because there is no truth to deny.

In other words, denying the existence of an objective and absolute truth is circular and inevitably violates the first self-evident principle of non-contradiction, which runs: "Nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect". This principle is necessarily and absolutely true, for it cannot be definitively denied without using it. Our knowledge of this principle is immediate, intuitive, and pre-conscious, and it is the starting point of all subsequent knowledge.

Our apprehension of the principle of non-contradiction follows upon our intuitive apprehension of being. When I know anything specifically, I first know that it "is". Whatever is, "is", and not "is not".

It is because we have real contact with existing natures outside the mind that we know with certainty all the other first principles that are implied in the intuitive apprehension of being. For example, to know that whatever is, is, is to know that each being is what it is, not what it is not (the principle of identity). Thus, an Oak tree is an Oak tree, not a tomato. Unless each being is what it is, we cannot conclude anything about anything whatsoever.

Moreover, because we know that "is" and "is not" are not identical, we know immediately and with certitude that from nothing comes nothing (the principle of causality). It is on account of this that we know pre-consciously that whatever is, has that whereby it is. In other words, whatever is, to the extent to which it is, possesses a sufficient reason for its being, so that it is capable of explaining itself to intelligence. With a little self-reflection, we know that we know this principle pre-consciously because we are always moved to ask questions; in so doing we seek the sufficient reason or causes of things (science). We naturally know that for every effect, there is a cause that explains it, and we know that the effect cannot be greater than the cause; for if the effect exceeds the cause, then a portion of the effect (something) has come from nothing and lacks sufficient reason for being. But this is impossible, since "nothing" is not something.

There are more first principles that can be uncovered by intelligence and their implications can be unravelled through careful reasoning, resulting in genuine insights into the ultimate nature of things (philosophy). The laws of being that can be uncovered by intelligence all apply to whatever is. In that sense, human persons can possess knowledge that is absolute, universal in scope, and necessarily true.

Truth in Perspective

Now although everything that exists "is", there is nevertheless a greater complexity to real things than that which is contained in the simple idea of being. There are various kinds of beings in the world and their complex natures are known gradually, through experience, that is, by observing their various activities. Non-living things have certain properties that can only be known through observation and experiment, and living things too have specific properties that inanimate things do not possess; animals have certain faculties that plants do not have, etc. The world is complex and rich in variety.

Although we are capable of possessing a genuine knowledge of things, our knowledge is not exhaustive. As we move from the more universal (i.e., being, or 2, 3, 4, 10 x 3, the properties of a triangle, etc) to the particular (this person named John, that work of art, these circumstances, Poland, etc.), the more we become aware of the limitations of our own perspective. The particular is so rich in detail and contains so many layers of meaning that although what we apprehend might be objective and absolutely true, our knowledge of it is often only partial. But it is precisely the limited perspectives of other human persons that can enlarge my own limited perspective. It is because their limited perspectives open them up to what is objectively and absolutely true, albeit beyond my limited purview, that it is in my best interest to learn to see aspects of this world through their eyes. This does not mean there is no universal truth; much less does it imply that contradictories can be true at one and the same time. It simply means that genuine dialogue with others can enlarge my world and enrich my possession of the truth.

I recall the day I asked a friend of mine to accompany me on a short walk for some fresh air after a few hours of marking exams while both of us were visiting a friend in a small Ontario town. Had I gone by myself, I would have missed out on the brief education in Victorian style homes that I received in that half hour walk. He has always loved architecture, and he came alive as we were walking through that old neighbourhood, noticing the great works of art underneath so many tasteless attempts at renovating them. As a result of my friend's excitement, I began to see the neighbourhood through his eyes; in fact, I continue to see old neighbourhoods through his eyes. In other words, I have been introduced to a better and more extensive apprehension of the real as a result of my friend's bias (slant) and limited perspective. And although our knowledge bears upon the same thing outside of us, for my friend there are far more layers of meaning contained in the judgment "This is a house" than there is for me.

Consider how much richer and more extensive is our understanding of history now, which includes Black history, and it all began with one person who had a bias, a slant or an angle. Falling in love with another will incline a person to seek to know the beloved more fully. Without that slant, one might have remained indifferent to the other, and indifference does not beget knowledge.

The human person is so complex that he can be known through a variety of angles (biases). He can be known psychologically and emotionally, philosophically, theologically, morally, politically, historically; he can be known empiriometrically, but even an empiriometric knowledge of the human person is had also from various angles, i.e., histologically, neurologically, biochemically, physiologically, etc.

It isn't bias or perspective that keeps a person from a deeper apprehension of the truth, but prejudice, which is a prior or premature judgment. It is appetite that is usually at the root of prejudice, and it is disordered appetite that adversely affects a person's judgment. Appetite is twofold: the sensitive appetites from which arise the eleven basic emotions, and the rational appetite (the will). Disordered passions (i.e., inordinate love of self) tend to cloud judgment, and the rational appetite will determine what a person allows himself to see or know - consider the expression: "There are none so blind as those who will not see".

That is why a person will not acquire the intellectual virtues without the moral virtues, for disordered passions rebel against reason. One virtue in particular that plays a central role in the acquisition of truth is humility, which is the moderate love of one's excellence. If a person lacks humility, he cannot tolerate the awareness of his own limitations and perfectibility, and so he is not moved to enter into dialogue with others in order that his own possession of the truth may be enlarged and enriched.

Concluding Thoughts

The idea that subjectivity renders objectivity impossible is an assumption that has not been sufficiently scrutinized. When a person writes a letter, his end (final cause) is to communicate what is on his mind. Without an intelligent subject to receive the communication, the letter is perhaps nothing more than lines of ink and cellulose fibers. But of course, the letter is much more than that. Without an intelligent subject to receive the letter, the fullness of what it is objectively cannot be properly apprehended.

Similarly, consider the claim that color and sound are not real, since without the perceiving subject, there are only sound waves and reflected light. And since it is true that sound waves are not sound, and reflected light is not color, color and sound, so it is argued, are not objective, that is, outside the mind, but merely within the perceiver. This again, however, involves the assumption that objectivity requires the elimination of subjectivity. But subjectivity is required in order to possess the objective, and so only through a subject who has the power to perceive is it possible to objectively grasp certain aspects of real existing beings, such as their colors and their sounds. The reason for this is that being exists ultimately for a knower, that is, for intelligence.

An objective knowledge of history, albeit incomplete, is also possible. Just as each being is what it is (the principle of identity), yet what it is can be misunderstood or understood more or less fully by one person than by another, so too an historical document can be misinterpreted, or interpreted more or less perfectly by one person than by another. A line or two in Aristotle's Physics, for example, might be correctly interpreted by two people and mean the same thing to both of them, but what Aristotle says there can be more completely understood by the scholar who has been pondering Aristotle's principles for 30 years from various angles than they would be by the student who has spent only a year thinking about them. Moreover, it is also possible that what a person says or writes can, either immediately or in time, be better understood by someone other than the author himself. But none of this is possible unless human persons are, by their sentient and intelligent nature, opened up onto the realm of real being.

The position articulated here is a very different alternative to the current fad of post-modern relativism, which begins with the premise that the realm of the real is in itself unintelligible and absurd, because it is in a pure state of flux. Post-modernism looks to man as the measure of what is true and meaningful, for things have no meaning in themselves, for all that is meaningful is locked into the subjectivity of the written or spoken word. The paradox, however, is that if this is so, dialogue becomes pointless and ultimately groundless. Everything becomes a matter of opinion, and no opinion has any more validity than any other, for even the rules of logic are constructs. The only law governing human choices is that which originates in the will of the majority, or the powerful. If human intelligence and reasoning cannot arrive at a genuine apprehension of the objective and absolute principles of a universal and natural moral law - because objective truth is not possible - , then power is all that is left to govern human beings.


Chapter: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26