Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A Girl Named Aletheia

At some point in the last year-- I don't remember when exactly-- I noticed that I no longer felt intimidated by philosophical speech, not from the mouth of anyone. Which isn't to say that all speech lost its power to intimidate me; compelling engagements in certain kinds of pop-rhetoric still captivate and quiet me. But that kind of speech, "pop-rhetoric" we'll continue to call it, has a very different purpose than philosophical speech; the many conventional language games we play in popular commerce are a kind of currency, grounded in power. The more confidently someone can use social conventions of communication, the more powerful in that social sphere a person can be.

And though philosophical rhetoric may also be a kind of currency, what's for sale isn't power. It deals in, for lack of a better term, Truth. Right perspective. Though it's likely that there is never a moment of philosophical communication free of power play, still it seems to me that a sincere attempt at "loving wisdom" is usually experienced as a directing of energy outside our conventional commerce, rather than into it-- that is, in philosophy we attempt to purchase, if it's possible, something outside human meaning. And I think the end of my intimidation from this sort of truth-bartering began when that purchase began to seem rather incomprehensible. Which is around the same time I met a girl named Aletheia.

No, not a girl, but if I do ever have the pleasure of having a daughter, I'd like to give her that name. Both for the sound, and for the concept it points to. And if I do give Aletheia as a daughter's name, it will already have been the pre-Socratic name for truth, one which Heidegger resurrected in the 20th century. That's right: Aletheia is a theory of truth. But not Truth in the way you are thinking; an unusual sort of truth. But what are you thinking?

The thinking, I think, usually goes like this: Truth is when you get something right in words. Right? There is coffee in my cup. Right, this is true. Hm. Well, what do you mean that it's true? I mean that there is coffee in my cup, in fact. I mean that I was right to say, "There is coffee in my cup." My words are in a true relationship with the world. This way of thinking about truth is often called "correspondence theory," and has its roots in the Socratic philosophers. Thomas Aquinas, a theologian who set the table of Christian theology using Greek dinnerware, stated this theory of truth very simply: “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to [...] external reality;” or, as he said elsewhere, "Truth is the equation of things and intellect."

An aside: It's fun, right? That everything that you know was made by others for you to know. Perhaps it's true that there is nothing new under the sun, but it's certainly true that there is nothing new inside your head. We take things for granted, like truth and things, but these are little purchases that have been made, little market changes that you were born into. This life you're living (the one we're talking about) is a fiat money system, with no one at the helm who knows what's up. So, we keep inflating, borrowing, lowering rates...

There is another kind of life though, one that isn't in words. And there is a theory of truth for that as well: Aletheia. This theory of truth says: "truth does not reside in language." Truth doesn't happen when I say something about the world. After all, the picture of a pipe is not a pipe. Nor is the idea of a pipe. But is a pipe a pipe? "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." If I tell you that there is coffee in my cup, by this theory I am giving you instructions about what will happen to you if you come into contact with what we've agreed to know as a cup, and speak of as such.

An aside: I typed that phrase-- "truth does not reside in language"-- into ye olde google yesterday, and came up with a particularly annoying use of the phrase, because the author (of a blog, yes) almost meant something by it, but ended up falling short and contradicting himself in the next few sentences. Which is ... just a little annoying. It'd be like looking up the phrase "Human dogma" and finding a watered down expression of apathetic relativism. Real estate I've purchased via squatter's rights, so keep your hands off my apple tree. No matter how small and crooked it may be.

There ain't nothing new in my head neither, and yet I persist in making little power plays with language. "Look! I'm right!" Yes, and now the world can end, satisfied finally. Thank you.

All the while, Aletheia dances in a corner. All the while that other theory of truth made by the other theorists, the first theorists, the ones who first purchased abstract property, is what we all ... where we all... live. In presence. For the pre-Socratic Greeks, and for Heidegger, truth is aletheia: that which shows itself, that which is revealed to us in presence. Not what we say about it, how we represent it, how we conceptualize it, but what shows. My statement about my cup isn't true, but it is a representation of truth, of an event.

I've made her case very poorly, I know, and I'm quitting before I've begun. My head swims with weird fishes. I've made her case poorly. Have I been making a case? But she isn't for sale; Truth isn't for sale. It's not something you can have, he says definitively. No, because by this way of thinking, truth is something that simply occurs. Sorry. We'd all like to be rich in truth, but the picture I'm seeing right now is one in which claiming you own the truth is like claiming you own the sunshine. Okay. Okay. Thank you.