Book Review: Harry Frankfurt’s “On Truth”

Harry Frankfurt’s essay “On Truth” gets 2 out of a possible 5 stars in the Shotgun book scale.

Mr. Frankfurt is the esteemed professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, and author of the book “On Bullsh***.”

I first heard of Mr. Frankfurt when a friend of mine quoted him as a great “secular epistemologist” in one of his essays on presuppositional apologetics.

When I saw Frankfurt’s book in B&N, I thought that I would find a good attempt to explain the concept of “Truth” in some objective fashion.  I was a little dissapointed however because instead of some attempt at formulating an objective epistemological understanding of truth, he skirts the issue entirely.

He says this about the metaphysics of truth:

“My editor has pointed out to me the rather paradoxical circumstance that, while no one has any trouble recognizing that there is plenty of bullsh*** around, quite a few people remain stubbornly unwilling to acknowledge that there might be –even in principle–such a thing as truth. 

In my discussion, however, I shall not even try –at least not by any directly confrontational argument or analysis–to settle once and for all the entangled debate between those who accept the reality of a meaningful distinction between being true and being false and those who energetically represent themselves (never mind whether they are correct in doing so, or whether it is even possible that they should be correct) as denying that the distinction is a valid one or that it corresponds to any objective reality.  That debate seems unlikely ever to be finally resolved, and it is generally unrewarding.”

Also, in a following statement he declares an unwillingness to even try defining the differences between “true and false.” 

So, how will Mr. Frankfurt define “truth” in his essay?  He says this:

“I will simply take for granted the more or less universally accepted commonsense ways of understanding these notions.”

Once explaining what his essay will NOT accomplish, he goes on to describe what he WILL be trying to do:

“My discussion will be concerned exclusively with the value and the importance of truth, and not at all with the value or the importance of our efforts to find truth or of our experience in finding it.”

Such a discussion does end up to be ultimately beneficial to the Christian, especially the apologetically minded Christian.  It is often the case, (especially these days) that we true believers find ourselves in verbal “battles” with people of a philosophically postmodern bent.  They usually content themselves with denying any sort of “truth” exists.

While as a Christian, I would have to disagree with certain formulations of Mr. Frankfurts athropological attempts at explaining why man seeks truth(1), I can whole-heartedly agree with the thrust of his argument that truth is itself an indispensable element of any functional society, and indeed is an indispensable aspect of any sort of rational thought. 

How indeed can you have a rational thought without being able to distinguish between what is “true” and what is “false?”  Consider this argument by Frankfurt.  He begins by characterizing the postmodern position on truth:

The point on which the postmodernists especially rely is just this:  what a person regards as true either is a function merely of the person’s individual point of view or is determined by what the person is constrained to regard as true by various complex and inescapable social pressures.  (page 21.)

He then brings up the example of workers who depend on objective truth to make their livings:

Surely it is unquestionable, regardless of what postmodernists or anyone else may say, that engineers and architects, for instance, must strive to achieve–and do at times succeed in achieving –genuine objectivity. 

Suppose that a bridge collapses under no more than normal stress.  What would that tell us? It would tell us, at a minimum, that those who designed or who constructed the bridge made some pretty bad mistakes.  It would be obvious to us that at least some of the solutions that they had devised, in dealing with the multiple problems they confronted, were fatally incorrect. (page 23)

The true genious of Frankfuts argument comes in the next chapter that he begins thus:

(Despite all the arguments from objective judgements above…) Still, many people manage to convince themselves — sometimes rather smugly — that normative judgements cannot properly be regarded as being either true OR false. 

Frankfurt decides to grant them this “truth” for a moment, and see where it will lead us:

Okay.  Suppose we concede this.  It remains clear nonetheless that accepting or rejecting an evaluative judgement must depend on other judgements that are themselves straightforwardly nonnormative.  Thus we cannot reasonably judge for ourselves that a certain person has a bad moral character except on the basis of factual statements describing instances of his behavior that seem to provide concrete evidence of moral deficiency.  Moreover, these factual statements concerning the person’s behavior must be true, and the reasoning by which we derive our evaluative judgement from them must be valid.  Otherwise, neither the statements nor the reasoning can effectively help to justify the conclusion.  They will do nothing to show that the evaluation resting on them is reasonable. 

So the distinction between what is true and what is false remains critically pertinent to our assessments of evaluative or normative judgements, even if it is agreed that the true-false distinction has no direct application to those judgements themsevles. 

Besides these practical arguments for truth, Frankfurt also excellently show’s how we cannot hope to be “rational” without recognizing the distinctions between true and false.

To be rational is fundamentally a matter of being appropriately responsive to reasons. (page 63.)

“Reasons” he explains are composed of facts.  If we didn’t distinguish between truth and falshood, then we couldn’t recognize the facts that compose “reasons.”  If we cannot respond to reasons, then we cannot be rational. 

One of the most memorable, useful, and encouraging quotes from the entire essay wraps up the chapter on truth and rationality:

“We cannot think of ourselves as creatures whose rationality endows us with an especially significant advantage over others–indeed, we cannot think of ourselves as rational creatures at all–unless we think of ourselves as creatures who recognize that facts, and true statements about the facts, are indispensable in providing us with reasons for believing various things and for taking various actions.

If we have no respect for the distinction between true and false, we may as well kiss our much-vaunted “rationality” good-bye.”

Using these arguments, (or similar ones tailored to the specific situation) the Christian apologist can show that the unbeliever (especially the post-modernist unbeliever) has no philosophical system with wich to think rationally. 

We should doggedly persue this line of argument, and demand that they provide for us a philosophical system that can account for truth.  If they cannot, then they cannot consider themselves rational creatures.

Thanks Mr. Frankfurt for helping articulate the indispensable nature of “truth.”

(1.)  He alludes to the philosopher Spinoza, and Spinoza’s idea that all men are driven to be truthful due to an imposed desire for truth via a concept of “love.”  A while back, I worked my way through Greg Bahnsens course on the History of Western Philosophy, and I remember his discussion of Spinoza’s monistic metaphysical view.  I speculate that his ethic of “love” is based on his metaphysical view.  It’s not my purpose here to refute monism, or Spinoza’s particular presentation of it.  As a Chrsitian, I will simply present MY view, that man’s desire to seek out and utilize truth is an aspect of the “image of God in man,” as well as part of the dominion mandate given by God to Adam in the garden–to work the world and subdue it.

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