On Truth: Between Is and Ought
Nov 6, 2020
Much has been written about truth recently. Many thinkers, philosophers, politicians, and even casual observers have recently returned to the debate that has raged since the Oxford English Dictionary declared post-truth to be its Word of the Year in 2016. Disillusioned with an unrelentingly bleak ‘is’ of the present, we have embraced post-truth because it appeals to our emotions, hopes, and dreams. It suggests the world as it ‘ought’ to be. The evolution of wishful thinking into ‘alternative’ fact has alarmed many.
Now threatened, perhaps more so than at any other time in recent human history, the nature of truth has attracted an elevated level of interest.
Does truth reflect an objective reality worthy of reverential respect, or is truth tactically negotiable as circumstances demand?
In most educational settings, the centrality and immutability of truth as the keystone of learning has informed the search for meaning and knowledge throughout recorded history. Herodotus, acknowledged by the Roman orator Cicero as the ‘Father of History’, was the first noted scholar to state facts as they appeared to be in a systematic and factual manner. The Athenian scholar Thucydides, the pioneer of ‘scientific’ history, applied rigour to the collection of evidence to support his writings. These traditions have resonated with scholars throughout history and inform all academic work at our school in the present.
For many, the polar opposite of truth, falsehood, is a serious human frailty rooted in deceit or ignorance. To make a false statement is to lie. To believe a lie is ignorance or worse. In essence, the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, for many rests with this distinction. As educators and parents, we work very hard to help our children understand the difference between right and wrong, whether answering exam questions or making choices. There is a clear ‘line’ between the right and wrong, true and false, and we want our children to be on the right side; they may tell fibs, but we want them to understand that this is wrong.
We now face a dilemma. How do we help our children understand the difference between right and wrong in a post-truth world? If adults can deal in untruths with impunity, how do we teach our children to tell the truth? In an age when the veracity of every public utterance is so questionable that we are forced to ‘fact-check’ our leaders – those who hold the fate of humanity in their hands – we confront a profoundly disturbing challenge: when that which should be trusted by all becomes inherently unreliable, how do we know what is real and true? The philosopher Hannah Arendt, commenting on the politics of the time, made a compelling case on the critical importance of truth in human civilisation:
What is at stake is survival…no human world destined to outlast the short life span of mortals within it will ever be able to survive without men willing to do what Herodotus was the first to undertake consciously…to say what is. No permanence, no perseverance in existence, can even be conceived of without men willing to testify to what is and appears to them because it is (Arendt, 1967).
The connection between truth and permanence is important here. Our existence is a despotic truth: it is beyond debate, it cannot be negotiated.
Such a stark, binary view of truth, while accurate, is perhaps misleading. What of creativity and imagination? We should not lose sight of the fact that our children deal with the real and imaginary – with fact and fiction – all the time. In fact, in the world of the child, make believe is an essential part of growing up, imagining what isn’t as if it were. Our children live in a rich world of the imaginary: they delight in its alternative take on the real world. The wizardry of Harry Potter, the curiosity of Alice in Wonderland, the innocent determination of hobbits, for example, exist so vividly in a child’s mind, where disbelief is suspended and visions of fabulous creatures and magical powers help to create a cosmos in the mind of fantastical phenomena. Even adults like to peek back over the wall into the Edenic garden of their youth to relive the enthralling visions and exciting adventures of the imagination, where life and death are mercifully absent, and everyone lives happily ever after. In our fantasy world, the timid are emboldened, the weak find hidden strength, super powers are unexpectedly bestowed, and the unlucky are blessed with perpetual good fortune. In fact, we encourage imagination; a childhood without it would be impoverished, unthinkable.
In the adult world, we laud those with vision and creativity. The artist sees with an almost supernatural eye to reveal that which is not evident to the photographer; the composer brings to our ears sonic beauty from another time and space; the sculptor fashions masterpieces from mute stone; and leaders build nations with inspiring words and breath taking visions. We might ask: aren’t these just mature examples of make believe, seeing something that isn’t as if it were? Charismatic leadership takes the disaffected and sells a compelling vision of something ‘more’ – the dream of a better world. At times, we all need hopes and dreams to give us direction and purpose. We seek refuge in the hope of better things to come in troubled times.
A vision does not replace reality, however. The tension between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ remains; it is not a binary choice, but a balance that must be managed and handled with care. We may suspend disbelief, at least for a while, as we contemplate the ‘ought’, but ultimately we dwell in what ‘is’. The trick that we must help our children master is how to draw inspiration and strength from what ought to be in order to shape what might be.
Dr. Malcolm Pritchard
Head of School
Arendt, H. (1967, 25 February). Truth and Politics. The New Yorker.