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On Truth by Harry G. Frankfurt.

On Truth

Title: On Truth
Author: Harry G. Frankfurt.
Genre: Non-fiction, philosophy, essay.
Country: U.S.
Language: English.
Publication Date: 2006
Summary: A follow-up to his essay 'On Bullshit' in which Frankfurt develops the argument that individuals should care about the truth, regardless of whether they intend to be truthful.

My rating: 8/10


♥ A society that is recklessly and persistently remiss in any of these ways is bound to decline or, at least, to render itself culturally inert. It will certainly be incapable of any substantial achievement, and even of any coherent and prudent ambition. Civilizations have never gotten along healthily, and cannot get along healthily, without large quantities of reliable factual information. They also cannot flourish if they are beset with troublesome infections of mistaken beliefs. To establish and to sustain an advanced culture, we need to avoid being debilitated either by error or by ignorance. We need to know - and, of course, we must also understand how to make productive use of - a great many truths...

...We really cannot live without truth. We need truth not only in order to understand how to live well, but in order to know how to survive at all. Furthermore, this is something that we cannot easily fail to notice. We are therefore bound to recognize, at least implicitly, that truth is important to us; and, consequently, we are also bound to understand (again, at least implicitly) that truth is not a feature of belief to which we can permit ourselves to be indifferent. Indifference would be a matter not just of negligent imprudence. It would quickly prove fatal. To the extent that we appreciate its importance to us, then, we cannot reasonably allow ourselves to refrain either from wanting the truth about many things or from striving to possess it.

♥ Spinoza believed it follows from this that people cannot help loving truth. They cannot help doing so, he thought, because they cannot help recognizing that truth is indispensable in enabling them to stay alive, to understand themselves, and to live fully in accord with their own natures. Without access to truths concerning their own individual natures, their particular capacities and needs, and the availability and correct use of the resources that they require in order to survive and to flourish, people would have very serious difficulty with their lives. They would be unable even to design appropriate goals for themselves, much less to pursue those goals effectively. They would be pretty much helpless, in fact, to keep themselves going at all.

Therefore, Spinoza maintained, a person who despises or who is indifferent to truth must be a person who despises or who is indifferent to his own life. Such a hostile or careless attitude toward oneself is extremely rare, and it is difficult to sustain. Thus, Spinoza concluded that nearly everyone - everyone who values and who cares about his own life - does, whether knowingly or not, love truth. So far as I can see, Spinoza was on the whole correct about this. Practically all of us do love truth, whether or not we are aware that we do so. And, to the extent that we recognize what dealing effectively with the problems of life entails, we cannot help loving truth.

♥ Lies are designed to damage our grasp of reality. So they are intended, in a very real way, to make us crazy. To the extent that we believe them, our minds are occupied and governed by fictions, fantasies, and illusions that have been concocted for us by the liar. What we accept as real is a world that others cannot see, touch, or experience in any direct way. A person who believes a lie is constrained by it, accordingly, to live "in his own world" - a world that others cannot enter, and in which even the liar himself does not truly reside. Thus, the victim of a lie is, in the degree of his deprivation of truth, shut off from the world of common experience and isolated in an illusory realm to which there is no path that others might find or follow.

♥ Needless to say, the "home" in which we find ourselves may not be a very attractive or inviting locale. It may be riddled with terrifying pitfalls and traps. The realities that it will require us to confront may be both dangerous and ugly. Far from our being fully confident in facing what awaits us, we may have no confidence whatever that we will succeed in negotiating it effectively, or even that we will be able to get through it alive.

Some people would advise us that there may be realities so frightening, or so discouraging and demoralizing, that we would be better off not knowing anything about them. In my judgement, however, it is nearly always more advantageous to face the facts with which we must deal than to remain ignorant of them. After all, hiding our eyes from reality will not cause any reduction of its dangers and threats; plus, our chances of dealing successfully with the hazards that it presents will surely be greater if we can bring ourselves to see things straight.

♥ We learn that we are separate beings in the world, distinct from what is other than ourselves, by coming up against obstacles to the fulfillment of our intentions - that is, by running into opposition to the implementation of our will. When certain aspects of our experience fail to submit to our wishes, when they are on the contrary unyielding and even hostile to our interests, it then becomes clear to us that they are not parts of ourselves. We recognize that they are not under our direct and immediate control; instead, it becomes apparent that they are independent of us. That is the origin of our concept of reality, which is essentially a concept of what limits us, of what we cannot alter or control by the mere movement of our will.

To the extent that we learn in greater detail how we are limited, and what the limits of our limitation are, we come thereby to delineate our own boundaries and thus to discern our own shape. We learn what we can and cannot do, and the sorts of effort we must make in order to accomplish what is actually possible for us. We learn our powers and our vulnerabilities. This not only provides us with an even more emphatic sense of our separateness. It defines for us the specific sort of being that we are.

Thus, our recognition and understanding of our own identity arises out of, and depends integrally on, our appreciation of a reality that is definitively independent of ourselves. In other words, it arises out of an depends on our recognition that there are facts and truths over which we cannot hope to exercise direct of immediate control. If there were no such facts or truths, if the world invariably and unresistingly became whatever we might like or wish it to be, we would be unable to distinguish ourselves from what is other than ourselves and we would have no sense of what in particular we ourselves are. It is only through our recognition of a world of stubbornly independent reality, fact, and truth that we come both to recognize ourselves as beings distinct from others and to articulate the specific nature of our own identities.

How, then, can we fail to take the importance of factuality and of reality seriously? How can we fail to care about truth?

We cannot.
Tags: 2000s, 21st century - non-fiction, 3rd-person narrative non-fiction, american - non-fiction, essays, non-fiction, philosophy, sequels
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