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Questions of truth and knowledge.

True or false: All crows are black.

Two real crows stand on grass facing each other, one black one white.

Introductions to epistemology typically begin with this definition:

Knowledge is justified true belief.

To know something it must be true. I don't know that your dog is brown, unless it actually is brown, regardless of how much I believe it. If I believed your dog was black, but it was brown, I could not be said to know either that it is black or brown. The 'justified' part is a little harder to explain. If I believe your dog is brown and it is, why does this also need to be justified?

If Jane believes she will win the lottery and she does, did she really 'know' this? There is only a 1 in a million chance of winning the lottery - it is not reasonable to think she will. It would be a 'justified' to believe she would not win (though not 'true'). We wouldn't say she 'knew'. However, if she had rigged the lottery so that her numbers would come up, then she would have been justified in believing she would win. In that case we would say she knew she was going to win.

Similarly, if I 'believe' your dog is brown simply because I think I am good at guessing and have never seen or heard anything about your dog, I wouldn't be said to 'know', only to have made a good guess. Note that this may be a matter of degree. If I 'believe' your dog is brown, because %80 of dogs are brown, there is some justification, I believe it, and it is true. Does knowledge have to be 'absolute'?

(Some might say, 'guessing' is not 'believing' but someone might actually believe they are good at guessing - for example that they are 'psychic'. Let's say they have been part of a psychology study with a large number of participants, where the subjects have to guess what card is next. The more participants in the study, the more statistically likely it is that one of them will make an unusually large amount of correct guesses. Seeing that they guessed more than anyone else, and not understanding statistics, they might honestly believe they are psychic and can guess the colour of your dog - though this is not a justified belief).

This is an important concept in philosophy and reasoning about whether something is or is not the case - especially when trying to decide whether one instance of a thing is or isn't a defined type of thing. If we are to decide whether A is B, there must be some criteria or conditions for making that decision. For example - 'Is Mittens a cat?' to decide that we might ask, 'Does Mittens have whiskers, a tail, four legs, fur? Does she like fish and chicken? Does she purr, sleep a lot, and always land on her feet?'

Such conditions are 'necessary' if they are required for A to be B. If A does have any one of these necessary conditions we can't call it a B. For example, all cats purr, so if Mittens doesn't purr, it's not a cat, perhaps it's a dog, since dogs also have whiskers, a tail and four legs. Note that the necessary and sufficient conditions also distinguish among different types of things.

Such conditions are 'sufficient' if they no more is required to determine that A is B. For example, if we know only that Mittens has four legs we may not be sure that she is a cat, as many other animals have four legs. Sufficiency often works in the other way to necessity, from general rules to particular cases. If I know that Mittens is a cat, that is sufficient to know many other things about Mittens, that Mittens has four legs, purrs, has whiskers, lands on her feet, etc.

This is important and common in Science where clarity and specificity is crucial. For example, in biology there are clear definitions for each genera and species. That mammals lactate and so on. If a new species doesn't meet the criteria of a classification it is not included. Hence Marsupials. This is important not only for organising and classifying but developing theories - the categories give clues about and bear some relation to theories about the natural world, such as evolution, the movement of continents and so on. On the other hand the real world often doesn't conform to the neat classifications we devise, as with the Platypus - so we must be cautious about thinking such classifications are 'real'.

Note that although it is a good tool for knowledge, this all depends on definitions. If we define a unicorn to have be a horse with a horn on it's head, then all we need to ask to decide if Rainbow Sparkle is a unicorn, is 'Is she a horse? Does she have a horn? Is her horn on her head?'. Although we might try to match our definitions to reality, they remain arbitrary human conventions. Learning some epistemology and rhetoric can be a mixed blessing. You will now note that many arguments in the world, whether at home, among friends, or in politics and public debate, simply come down to people having different definitions. Sometimes it's great because you can quickly resolve heated debate by showing that both sides just have different definitions and that they actually agree, if only they put it in different words. On the other hand it's saddening to see so many needless arguments, problems and false premises and conclusions, often of great importance, that could so easily be resolved yet are beyond your ability to influence (bearing in mind also, that it's often more about power and vested interest, than 'truth and knowledge').

The necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be knowledge are generally accepted to be, 'justified, true belief'.

What is truth? One question we might ask about 'justified true belief' is "How are we to know that something is true, such that a statement would qualify as knowledge?" How can we know that we know, if 'truth' remains uncertain. This is another reason why 'justification' is important. There needs to be a justification for believing something is true. Whether something is 'true' ie: whether we can know that we know, is a matter of great debate. What kinds of things might be known to be true if any at all? What do we mean by the word 'true'?

Frege says that words like 'true' and 'know' are actually meaningless, except that we use these words to emphasise a point, if there is doubt. If I were to ask, "Is it true that Joe is guilty of theft?" is no different to asking "Is Joe guilty of theft?" To say, "I know there is a glass of water there." is the same as if I say, "There is a glass of water there."

Some Theories Of Truth And Methods For Arriving At It

Correspondence Theory of Truth: This is the understanding of knowledge and truth that most people have. Simply put, according to this view a statement is true, or we have knowledge, if the statement corresponds to reality. The statement 'Mittens is a cat' is true if in the real world there is a creature called Mittens and it is a cat.

Foundationalism: Knowledge may be derived from premises that are known to be true, using methods known to be valid, such as logic. This approach follows mathematics, like geometry, where a premise, such as 'the sum of angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees' and the Pythagorean theorem can be used to reach conclusions about traingles, other shapes and so on. This is the method used by Descartes when trying to arrive at an absolute certainty by doubting everything, and concluding 'I think therefore I am'. His meditations attempts to derive more truths from this starting premise. Other enlightenment philosophers adopt this approach.

Coherence: We regard something as true within a system of beliefs if it doesn't contradict anything else within this system. For example, we can regard geometry as a system, within which there can be no contradictory assertions about shapes. The more that new 'knowledge' coheres with our other beliefs, the more it is 'justified'.

Pragmatism: Knowledge is whatever determines a course of action. Pragmatists focus on 'usefulness'. If we are willing to act on something, then we accept, at least for the moment, as knowledge. Another way of looking at knowledge in pragmatism is what we will arrive at the end of all debate. 'Knowledge' in this case is something don't have now, at least not 'certainty', but is an ideal we work towards. While that may be the case it doesn't tell us much about the debate, or about knowledge.

Socratic Method: We already know everything and need only remember it. According to Plato, Socrates argued, and supposedly demonstrated by questioning people, that all knowledge is already within us and we only need to be reminded of it.

Logic, Demonstration and Dialectic: see the next section on Aristotle.

Mysticism: The word 'mystical' now has a broad loose meaning but in relation to knowledge it means that knowledge or some kinds of knowledge cannot be explained but must be experienced. Mystical knowledge is usually a part of religious practice relating to knowledge or experience of the gods, divinity, a holistic understanding of the universe, or the ability to communicate or become one with with gods and spirits. If we take the requirement to provide an explanation as a necessary condition for something to be called philosophy, we would have to exclude this kind of knowledge from philosophy - except that we might try to explain whether mystical knowledge is possible or not, as opposed to understanding its workings or explain it's method. In any case, since the point is it can't be explained there is not much point in explaining it here.

Aristotle (384BC-322BC) wrote extensively on many subjects in philosophy and his works have been the basis of an influenced much debate since. Among his concerns was how to make valid arguments to arrive at knowledge. Aristotle clearly defined a range of 'syllogisms' which are logical rules for valid reasoning from premises to conclusions. For example:

If all unicorns have horns and RainbowSparkle is a unicorn then RainbowSparkle has a horn.

This is logically valid and internally consistent, and if the premises are true, leads to a true conclusion. For Aristotle, and many others, this is one way we can arrive at new knowledge from existing knowledge. Although it is logically valid it's truth depends on two things - whether all unicorns have horns, or whether there even are unicorns. These are 'facts' we'd have to check in the world. This shows one of the simplest but most important points in valid reasoning, argument and rhetoric - that there are two ways of proving some argument wrong. One is to check whether it is logically valid or invalid. Another is to check whether the statement corresponds to reality. (We will look more closely at logic in a later workshop on logic and rhetoric.)

Aristotle goes into great depth, so for now let's just look at a contrast between demonstration and dialectic few terms:

A demonstration is a reasoned argument (such as by syllogistic logic) based on premises that are known to be true in and of themself (eg: 1+1=2; or 'all unicorns have horns' because having a horn is entailed in the idea of what it means to be a unicorn - it is a necessary condition, or part of the definition.)

Dialectic is a reasoned argument (such as by syllogistic logic) based on premises that are accepted to be true by anyone participating in the debate (eg: we might be talking to a group of people, and start by saying, "Ok, so I think we can all agree that apples are healthy. So if all apples are healthy..."

(Recently, listening to the 'History Of Philosophy Without Any Gaps' I learned that the ancient greek work 'episteme' which we translate as 'knowledge' included the sense not only that something 'really is' the case but also it meant understanding why something is the case. In our first workshop we noted that one thing that distinguished philosophy as it emerged among the presocratics was a need to provide a well reasoned argument for any assertion. Now I start to wonder whether this meaning of 'episteme' to include truth, knowledge and understanding is what made such a difference in the emergence of 'philosophy' among the pre-socratics - ie: that in the language and cognition of early Greeks, there was no distinction between the idea of something being true and understanding why, being able to explain so that if someone asked 'is it true?' it was assumed this involved an explanation. See 'language' below.)

Avicenna (980-1070) was a prodigious philosopher, writing lucidly and methodically on all topics in philosophy, building largely on Aristotle and setting the subsequent course of philosophy in the Islamic and Western world. He was particularly influential on the development of science and especially medicine. He is regularly credited with having developed 'clinical trials' for testing the effectiveness of drugs. His 'floating man' thought experiment presents much the same argument as Descartes 'I think therefore I am'.

It is frustratingly difficult to find translations of his work, given his importance, but in only the first few pages of his 'Metaphysics' or 'First Philosophy' his approach is clear. His approach, similar to Aristotle is to begin by drawing distinctions in a topic to identify firstly what the topics are and in what ways they are different. For example, he begins, on the first page by setting out categories about which knowledge can be obtained. This in order to make distinctions about different kinds of knowledge and the different methods required for acquiring different kinds of knowledge.

He opens thus:

For each science there is a subject matter the condition of which is investigated by that science. Subject matter is of two kinds: the one which depends for its being on our action, and the other which does not depend on for its being on our action. A example of the first is our behaviour; examples of the second are the earth, the heaven animals, and plants.

The broad categories of knowledge are:

After only 4 pages Avicenna has drawn distinctions between such concepts as universal and particular, potential and necessity, cause and effect, substance and accident, showing these relate to 'being qua being' in contrast to things like 'quantity' and 'motion' which belong to mathematical and natural knowledge. On page 4 Avicenna takes as a first indubitable principle 'being':

Being is recognized by reason itself without the aid of definition or description. Since it has no definition, it has neither genus nor differentia because nothing is more general than it. Being does not have a description since nothing is better known than it.

and then makes another (Aristotelian) distinction crucial to subsequent metaphysics and epistemology:

In its first division, being is prima facie of two kinds: the one is called substance and the other accident. Accident is that whose being subsists in something else, so that that being which is complete without it is either active by itself due to itself, or by means of those things which bring about its being.

The difference described here is between things which exist in themselves (having an 'essence') and those which can only exist in relation to something else. For example, if there is a white cup, the cup is the 'substance' existing independently, and 'whiteness' is 'accidental' and can only exist if it is instantiated in something else. This relationship is sometimes expressed in different terms, such as 'properties' or 'qualities' of 'objects'.

There is a lot to consider in Epistemology, 1000s of years of subtle and elaborate debates carried on over thousands of pages, but simply bearing in mind some of these related key distinctions helps a great deal in thinking through any problem or argument:


Repeating from the section on Avicenna, he says:

In its first division, being is prima facie of two kinds: the one is called substance and the other accident. Accident is that whose being subsists in something else, so that that being which is complete without it is either active by itself due to itself, or by means of those things which bring about its being.

The difference described here is between things which exist in themselves (having an 'essence') and those which can only exist in relation to something else. For example, if there is a white cup, the cup is the 'substance' existing independently, and 'whiteness' is 'accidental' and can only exist if it is instantiated in something else. This relationship is sometimes expressed in different terms, such as 'properties' or 'qualities' of 'objects'.


This 'substance'/'accident' distinction has an important relation to grammar and logic, where it is called 'subject' and 'predicate'. If I say 'Mittens is grey.' 'Mittens' is the subject and 'grey' is the predicate. Note that grammatically, if I say, "Mittens' is a cat." being a 'cat' is the predicate, while if I say, "Cats are grey." then 'cats' is the subject. We will look more at this in 'Logic and Rhetoric'.

a priori / a posteriori

A priori knowledge is knowledge that requires no recourse beyond the statement itself, such as 'If all unicorns have horns, she has a horn because she is a unicorn.' or 'If x is greater than y and y is greater than z then x is greater than z.' A posteriori statements require reference to something beyond the statement to validate them, such as 'Jack has a new car.'

One common example of the difference is:

All crows are birds. (a priori)

All crows are black. (a posteriori)

Note that to check if 'All crows are black' is true we would have to check every crow in the world to decide if it is true. To show that it is false we would only have to find one white crow. It can be easier to falsify a posterior statements than to prove them.

Note that if we said 'Crows are black birds and his bird is a crow so it must be black.' would be an a priori statement.


Immanuel Kant basis much of his critique on this distinction:

In all judgments in which the relation of a subject to the predicate is thought (if I only consider affirmative judgments, since the application to negative ones is easy) this relation is possible in two different ways. Either the predicate B belongs to the subject A as something that is (covertly) contained in this concept A; or B lies entirely outside the concept A, though to be sure it stands in connection with it. In the first case, I call the judgment analytic, in the second synthetic.

This is about the same as saying that the relation of subject to predicate is either a priori (analytic) or a posteriori (synthetic).

necessary and contingent

If something is necessarily true, it could not be otherwise. It must be the case in any possible world we could imagine. For example, 2+2=5 or 'If Brutus killed Caesar, Caesar is dead.' A contingent truth depends on something else, it may or may not be the case, it is a possibility. Eg: Brutus need not necessarily have murdered Caesar. He could have walked away. The series of events that lead up to the killing were 'contingent', ie: that Caesar was surgically removed from his mother's womb, that he conquered Gaul, that he became emperor, that conspirators hatched a plot to kill him, and so on.

Finding necessary conditions in a long and elaborate story or problem can be a quick way to cut up confusion or resolve a disagreement. It can be useful for project management or system design to identify what's necessary for success, and what the series of contingencies are, out of a whole lot of rambling meetings and other things happening.

Induction and Deduction

Deduction is where we draw conclusions through reason. This typically involves reasoning from a priori knowledge, but as in 'dialectic' could involve valid reasoning from agreed principles.

Induction is where we draw conclusions through repeated observations. For example, if the sun rises every day we conclude that it will rise tomorrow. Some mathematical proofs are arrived at by 'induction' - by looking at patterns recurring in a series, without checking every occurrence to infinity. Induction is fallible: Every day the farmer brings a bucket of grain to feed the turkey, and the turkey rushes to meet the farmer to be fed but one day the farmer brings an axe.

One of the main debates in Enlightenment philosophy was around whether reason (Rationalism) or our senses (Empiricism) provided the most reliable access to truth and knowledge. A crucial part of Descartes' (rationalist) method was to rule out everything that could in any way be doubted, in order to arrive at a certain, a priori, truth. This lead him to rule out all sense perception, imagining that even without senses, he would still be assured of his own existence if he were able to think of it ('I think therefore I am'). (Avicenna had previously imagined a man floating in space to reach a similar conclusion). Descartes says:

But afterwards many experiences little by little destroyed all the faith which I had rested in my senses; for I from time to time observed that those towers which from afar appeared to me to be round, more closely observed seemed square, and that colossal statues raised on the summit of these towers...

Typically 'rational' is related to the mind and a priori knowledge, and 'empirical' to the outside, usually material, world, a posteriori.

This is an old debate. Long before Descartes, Epicurus and others pointed out that perceptions are the only (limited) objective knowledge that we have access to. We cannot be sure our perceptions depict the way the world really is and we cannot be sure any conclusions we draw from them are absolutely certain - but we can know for sure that we perceive what we perceive. Epicurus would argue that the only thing available to us to prove that point, that the tower is square and that our perception was faulty, are our perceptions. It can't be denied that the tower actually appeared to be round and later actually appeared to be square regardless of whether it is round or square.

Some rationalists would argue that only a priori can be known for certain, such as mathematical truths. Empiricists might object that rationality can only ever be based on experience - the only reason we can count is because of our experience of things in the world that occur in 1s, 2s and 3s. There can be no thought without it being based on some content derived from experience. In this way it is secondary to experience and so fallible - our reasoning about the tower, our conclusion that it was round, was false, as verified by the later fact of our experience of it as square.

There are arguments against truth and knowledge.


Skepticism is evident in ancient Indian philosophy, in Cārvāka materialism, in Buddhism and Jainism. The well known parable of the blind men and the elephant has been dated to earlier than 500BC (Each blind man touches part of the elephant: the trunk, the side, the leg, the ear, the tail, the tusk and each describes it differently, as being like a snake, a wall, a pillar, a fan, a rope and something hard and smooth. One aspect of Buddhism is not to cling to beliefs, and to dismiss futile arguments on fruitless paths of inquiry. This helps achieve a detached calm. Buddhist texts describe schools of skeptics existing before Buddha, which specialised in refuting arguments.

Western Skepticism is said to begin with Pyrrho. Diogenes Laertius who wrote biographies and summaries of ancient philosophers wrote that Pyrrho was with Alexander the Great when he conquered the Indus region of India and that he learned from the 'gymnosophists' or wise men while he was there. Pyrrhonian skepticism focused on refuting arguments and not accepting anything as true as a means to achieve a calm and peaceful life.

The main point of skepticism is to always suspend final judgment - accepting neither that it is, nor that it is not. Although the practice of skepticism involves looking for arguments against any assertion (in contrast to sophists who argued that rhetoric could be used to convince anyone) it does not mean asserting there is can be no possibility of knowledge, since that itself would be an assertion.

Skepticism is an attitude of suspending judgment, even if there is a convincing argument and things seem to be known. We might find some argument or evidence against in future. It is also a attitude of questioning - to actively criticise and look for counter arguments. If nothing else, it helps avoid persisting in beliefs shown to be wrong.

In theory, this remains the attitude of 'academics' today - to allow for and invite criticism, openly accepting the need to review and change our assertions and conclusions in response to the criticism of others. Clearly it doesn't always work that way in practice, but it remains an ideal. If science and a feeling of certainty has lead to great wrong, this principle should end wrong doing sooner rather than later. Again this is an ideal that doesn't always work in practice.

III. There remains one class of critics who disapprove of the general principles of the Academy. Which we should be more concerned at if any one approved of any school of philosophy except that which he himself followed. But we, since we are in the habit of arguing against every one who appears to himself to know anything, cannot object to others also dissenting from us. Although our side of the question is an easier one, since we wish to discover the truth without any dispute, and we seek for that with the greatest anxiety and diligence. For although all knowledge is beset with many difficulties, and there is that obscurity in the things themselves and that infirmity in our own judgment, that it is not without reason that the most learned and ancient philosophers have distrusted their power of discovering what they wished; yet they have not been deficient in any respect, nor do we allow ourselves to abandon the pursuit of truth through fatigue; nor have our discussions ever any other object except that of, [pg 026] by arguing on each side, eliciting, and as it were, squeezing out something which may either be the truth itself, or may at least come as near as possible to it. Nor is there any difference between us and those people who fancy that they know something, except that they do not doubt at all that those doctrines which they uphold are the truth, while we account many things as probable which we can adopt as our belief, but can hardly positively affirm.

And in this we are more free and unfettered than they are, because our power of judging is unimpeached, and because we are not compelled by any necessity to defend theories which are laid upon as injunctions, and, if I may say so, as commands... But they have either formed their opinion as well as they could from a hearing of all the circumstances, and also from a knowledge of the opinions of philosophers of all the other schools; or else, having heard the matter mentioned once, they have surrendered themselves to the guidance of some one individual. But, I know not how it is, most people prefer being in error, and defending with the utmost pugnacity that opinion which they have taken a fancy to, to inquiring without any obstinacy what is said with the greatest consistency.

The Academic Questions - Cicero

For in spite of our negative attitude towards the certainty of knowledge we are very far from being just intellectual drifters who flounder about without any idea what we are looking for. To be quite without any sort of principles to base our discussions and our lives upon would totally rule out any intellectual life, or indeed any life at all. Other schools of philosophy maintain that some things are certain, and others uncertain. We adopt a special view of our own. What we say is that some things are probable and other improbable.

On Duties (II) - Cicero


What is 'yellow'? Do we all experience colours the same way?

Bishop Berkeley. After Descartes. Newton just recently. Big influence from Locke who was an Empiricist.

Elephant parable.

Uexkull and the perception of time for snails and fighting fish.

Things only are in so far as we interpret them as such, or in so far as they appear to us. A tree falling in the woods does not make a sound if I'm not there to hear it. 'sound' only means something to those who have ears, the same applies to anything we might say about sound waves etc.

Do these words 'existence', 'being', 'truth', 'knowledge' mean anything to a stone? They only have meaning to us.

"If horses and oxen had hands and could draw pictures, their gods would look remarkably like horses and oxen." - Xenophanes, 6th-5th BC

and Worff Sapir and ELDTA?

A matter of degree, and so measurable - crucial to science

Scientific truth.

Skepticism and science.

Scientific theories - are there really atoms? Do electrons really orbit the nucleus in valency layers? Scientific 'laws of nature', theories, explanatory power and predictability.

Does science prove facts? The limits of scientific knowledge.

Knowing that in these controlled circumstances we can be x% confident of such and such.

Science is limited to repeatable phenomena. Humanities is not. As powerful as science may be, how much of your life is repeatable? A great deal of the utmost importance is highly contingent - getting a job, who runs government, meeting someone and falling in love. Such things are not beyond the scope of humanities. Indeed the whole point of a truth in history, a historical truth, by contrast to a scientific truth, is that it is highly contingent. Many of the truths in law, whether someone committed a crime, are also highly contingent. We do not ask, 'Every time there is a Brutus, will they kill Caesar.' this is almost a nonsensical question. Science may none the less be used in an effort to decide historically contingent truths (such as in archaeology and forensics).


Scios meaning 'know', used by Latins to translate Greek 'episteme' https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/bacon2.asp

Science and rhetoric - science is often used to justify arguments, although science provides 'logos' it is used as 'ethos', because we trust it. Rhetorically things may be made to sound scientific.

Science is provides 'logos', if it is done right it is reliable and evidenced based. We are often perplexed when people and politicians apparently ignore science or do not turn to science to determine the truth of the matter and to guide decision making. This is because scientific arguments are often limited to 'logos'. Ideally this would be enough, but rhetoric shows that ethos and pathos are also required.

Roger Bacon:

How from the same symptom do we determine from different causes.

Al Kindi 'On Rays'. Ibn Al Haitham, texts on optics, challenges Ptolemy rays from our eyes, says things emit rays with complex proofs. 'The secret of secrets' supposedly by Aristotle to Alexander, but dubious.

Expressing things in this finite world in mathematics, accessing a more ultimate higher knowledge, approaching understanding god, high in the Aristotelian heirarchy of knowledge, maths underpins all science (optics, music, etc)

Wanted Scientia Experimentalis (natural philosophy) to be part of University curriculum. Recognises Solomon, Aristotle, Avicenna. Must learn from experiences, better than proofs, even maths is better with a diagram that gives intuitive insight.

Semiotics - significant language is conventional. A tool. Meaning only when someone has intention to signify. The meaning is set by the original intender. People can take the word to use for something else - leads to equivocation. Unifocally is to use it in the same way. Sign used for it when it does and later when it doesn't exist. When used as instance and species. When used grammatically different. etc.

Species - the first natural means of one natural agent effecting another - applying it's 'species' on other things. Not like parts of themselves or emitting.

Species propogate across a medium (a bit like waves). Eg: light affects air and is passed along. Medium diffuses influence. - Drawing on Ibn Al Haitham. Also, Al Kindi's 'On Rays'. But rejection of occult and magic. Base it on experience.

Bacon: things known through reason, but need experiment/experience to fully understand (eg: fire burns), use both together.

Syllogism: From universal to particular.

Truth in Fiction:

"For in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true."

Oscar Wilde, The Truth Of Masks https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Truth_of_Masks

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth”. - Camus.

Parables, fables and other stories convey knowledge or a 'truth' or 'wisdom' (philosophy) not by explaining but by giving an example ('showing' not 'telling') - Aesop's Fables, Animal Farm, dystopian science fiction.

Jokes that are funny because they tell a truth.

Soviet humour: Under communism the state and it's means of oppression will be abolished. People will be able to arrest themselves.

'Irony' is saying something but meaning the opposite. (It can also mean when the opposite of what is intended happens, usually in a way that brings justice.)

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest--
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men--
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.

- Marc Antony in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

Marc Antony has promised he will tell the crowd that Brutus is honorable. Marc Antony keeps his promise but the crowd understands Marc Antony means the opposite.

One of the main objections to this way of understanding the truth of what something is or isn't, is that language doesn't usually work that way. These determinations are dependent on language - it is within a language that we are making an assertion or proposition and it is through the rules of language that we determine what are valid statements and propositions. Language may sometimes be clearly defined by agreed convention, as in science, where it is crucial to the practice, but these are actually rare cases. Language is used for many things other than making statements of fact about the world - for issuing commands, determining social status, exercising power, invoking emotions, making friends, making jokes, and so on. Not only this but even in common language use where we want to say something is or isn't the case, the necessary and sufficient conditions aren't very clear.

Wittgenstein is a philosopher famous for radically changing his approach from a thorough and strictly logical analysis of language to develop a complete and coherent system (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) to illustrating the futility of an attempt to formalise meaning (Philosophical Investigations). One of his examples is what we mean when we say 'game'. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be a 'game'. In English, chess and football are both games but very different in that one is very physical and the other not, yet both have formalised rules for play and for winning, so perhaps that is what defines 'game'. Yet children running in the yard without formal rules, or making them up as they go are also playing a 'game' - similar to football in it's physicality. We cannot find necessary and sufficient conditions that define the word 'game'. In science we might dismiss the term and make a convention to categorise these activities differently, but that is not how language usually works. More than that, Wittgenstein uses this not merely as an example, but as a metaphor for the 'rules' we might apply to language, logic and thought (since thought is expressed, or takes it's form, in language - representations of some kind). Language and any way we might reason about it, ie: philosophy, works like a 'game' - sometimes there are rules, sometimes not, sometimes we change them as we go along, but what it is and what the rules are can never be settled upon once and for all.

A focus on 'meaning' rather than truth and knowledge in the 20th century.

Heidegger - hermenuetic circle

Derrida - nothing outside the text

There was some discussion of problems of translation in the workshop, such as the extent to which language structures consciousness. Even if the cognitive distinctions we make about the world, manifest in our language, are derived from our real environment, they still determine the metaphors and analogies we make when thinking about other things, interacting with each other, judging each other and so on.

Sometimes we read translations where the meaning is different. How important is this? It doesn't mean it is completely wrong but it does mean we need to read translation with a skeptical attitude. A good scholarly translation will make some effort to explain important nuances in the meaning of words in the introduction and footnotes. This does relates to language structures consciousness. In English we have the word 'home' which means something different to 'house' while some other languages only have the word 'house'. Different translations of Lao Tzu convey different meanings. This work is like poetry, so someone reading translations of the Tao Te Ching can understand better if they also read something about how Mandarin works and about Chinese poetics. If you don't understand completely it doesn't follow that you don't understand at all, and it doesn't follow that you can't improve your understanding. One example of misunderstanding doesn't mean there is no understanding. Motori Norinaga writes on poetics, explaining that an autumn leaf has meaning and can be used to express an emotional state because of our shared experience, environmentally and culturally. With a similar background we can simply write 'autumn leaf' to invoke a certain feeling in another. This makes meaning across cultures difficult, but again it is a matter of degree - two people who grew up in the same suburb will have much in common but also many different experiences. To me, translation draws attention to something that applies in all language, that what something means to one person is not exactly the same in all it's connotations to another person. Normally, speaking to someone with a similar culture and in the same language, our different meanings are so similar that there is no question. However, sometimes there is and we need to explain more to each other. When speaking across different languages this happens a lot so meaning is more called into question. This is a bit like 'ostranenie' or 'making strange', a poetic technique of expressing something in unusual language in order to make us conscious of language itself, how it works, and to pay more attention to what is being said - rather than ordinary language that allows us to pass over things with the assumption we have understood.

Here's how I see it: If we all had the same experience and understood each other absolutely, we would have no need for language as we would already understand everything and nothing need be communicated. If we could not possibly understand anything at all about each other's experience there would also be no need for language as we could not possibly communicate anything. If language had no use because communication was either not possible, or we already understood each other exactly, there would be no language. We find language useful because firstly we don't understand each other completely and secondly it is possible to understand each other better. Language would not exist if this were not so.

'Episteme', in ancient Greece included the concept not only of knowing that something is the case but being able to explain it - did this influence the emphasis on reasoning and justification for claims that are crucial to Western philosophy, or did episteme come to have that connotation because of philosophy?

The blind men and the elephant:

Japanese print of elephant and men grabbing different parts of it.