What is a work of Art?

Starry Night
Van Gogh “Starry Night”

What is a work of art? It is not present-at-hand like a rock or a tree, nor ready-to-hand like a computer or a car. Yet it has features in common with both. Like a rock and unlike a computer, it has no specific purpose and essentially contains conspicuous natural, ‘thingly’, materials. Like a computer and unlike a rock, it is made by humans, but the artist’s creativity has an affinity to the creation of nature in that it appears, like nature, the artist (and we are speaking only of great art here) is unaware of the processes that are going on within the project (see, for example, the letter of Mozart on the origin of his music in the post on the Arts as an Area of Knowledge).

We might like to consider art in terms of the artist’s choices, a choice of this theme rather than that, of this material, of his pigment, etc. But the artist does not choose. The work of art is more like a project or projection, which sets up a world in which choices can be made. Truth, the revelation of being, is ‘set into the work’ and ‘set to work’, illuminating the world and the earth on which it rests. As Human Being is thrown in its own project and understands itself in terms of it (life), so the artist is originated by the work of art. The point is not simply that no one is an artist until he/she creates a work, but that the artist is not in control of his/her own creativity: the artist is not her own.  Her only choice is whether to create the work or not, as it is for the audience to choose to enter into the world created by the artist’s work. To those artists who wish to send ‘messages’ through their art, I would suggest that they try email or some other medium; it is much easier and much more efficient. If by “message” one means that the artist is a “messenger” of a force or spirit greater than herself, then it is probable (and this is shown by all great artists) that they do not know where their “message” comes from i.e. they are acting as an intermediary, a daemon if you like.

Art is a sort of impersonal force that uses the artist for its own purposes. William Blake would say that this impersonal force is the Divine Imagination. A work is to be understood in terms of being and the world, not of its author or maker.  A work also needs an audience, or rather ‘preservers’ and ‘preservation’, which means: ‘Standing in the openness of beings that happens in the work’. A rock is what it is apart from any onlookers; the purpose of a computer is imminent in it, and in any case a computer, like any equipment in good working order, is essentially inconspicuous even when in use, let alone when set in sleep mode. But a work or art needs preservers (an audience) to bring out its meaning and to receive the light that it sheds on their lives. ‘Artificial intelligence’, or what is called such, is not capable of creating a true work of art because it is incapable of this world projection where choices can be made; the choices have already been pre-determined within the programming. This also applies to the elephants in Thailand that produce painted objects that the tourists pay their dollars for. If elephants were capable of projecting a world, then we would find evidence of the art

The focus in the modern is on aesthetics, from the Greek aisthesis, ‘perception’, since it focuses on the audience and their ‘subjectivity’ at the expense of the artist and the work, and on the superficial, perceptible beauty of the work: ‘The aesthetic […] turns the work of art from the start into an object for our feelings and ideas. Only when the work has become an object, is it fit for exhibitions and museums’. (Heidegger) The work embodies truth first of all, and sensory beauty only secondarily; but it is this beauty which leads us to the truth of the work and allows us to act (and wish to act) as preservers. (See the commentary on the role of beauty in Plato’s allegory of the Cave). The work, or art itself, is primary: it generates the artist and the audience/preservers as the sea fashions its own coastline. Both the audience and the artist engage in the happening of truth and in the preservation of truth that occurs in art.

Friedrich Nietzsche

To understand how we moderns have come to understand art, we need to examine the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s view of art and try to relate it to the theories of truth that we have written of up to this time. Nietzsche believes that:

  1. Art is the most transparent and familiar form of the will to power.
  2. Art must be understood in terms of the artist.
  3. Art is, on an extended concept of the artist, the basic happening of all beings; insofar as beings are, they are something self-creating and created.
  4. Art is the distinctive counter-movement against nihilism.
  5. Art is the great stimulant of life.
  6. Art is worth more than truth.

Nietzsche’s (and in using Nietzsche, I should also be using the royal ‘we’ since his view is what dominates our view) views of art remain focused on the Cartesian separation of mind and body, subject and object. Nietzsche ignores the primacy of the work and focuses on the artist as creator.  Truth, for Nietzsche, is the accurate portrayal of the current state of affairs in the arts in terms of rigid categories and concepts. Art ‘transfigures’ life, moves it into higher, as yet unlived possibilities, which do not hover “above” life, but rouse it from itself anew into wakefulness, for “Only through magic does life remain awake” (George, “The New Realm”)’. Although both truth (and knowledge) and art are required for life, art is superior to truth in Nietzsche’s sense of truth.

But Nietzsche’s notion of truth is overly traditional, and he retains Plato’s contrast between art and truth. Strictly, or ‘originally’, truth is not correspondence with fact, but what Nietzsche says art provides: the disclosure of a realm of new possibilities. Since art is this disclosure of new possibilities, art rebels against the status quo: the artist and the city (or society) are in constant strife against each other.

The aesthetic view of art stems from the human-centred metaphysic of modernity and is bound up with a view of being as humanism; it coheres with the conception of beings and things as what is ‘objectively representable’. My own states, the way I feel in the presence of something, determines my view of everything I encounter. Hence art, for us, is in danger of becoming a device for the provision of ‘experience’. This is abetted by the view that a work of art is a thing, a crafted thing, with aesthetic value superimposed on it. Despite the Greek use of techne for both ‘craft’ and ‘art’ (since techne means bringing forth beings, whether by craft or by art, into truth or unhiddenness, into presence), the origin of a work of art is not a product of craft, let alone a thing, with beauty added. It is where truth is sheltered, the truth that enables beings to appear as beings in the open region and craftsmen to produce their artifacts. Overcoming aesthetics is an integral part of overcoming metaphysics if one wishes to view the world in a new way. All art, whether it is the art of a William Blake or any other great artist, attempts to make us “see anew”, but this “seeing anew” is beyond the realm of aesthetics or sense experience. Whether art will decline into an ‘instrument of cultural policy’ (as is the case here in Singapore) or will set the truth (in) to (the) work once more is a matter for ‘decision’ (Heidegger); the outcome for art in the technological age is uncertain .

Art is ‘the letting-happen of the arrival of the truth of beings as such’. This means that all art is essentially ‘poetry’. But how is this so?

Is the work of art a Thing?

‘Thing’ is a distinct ‘thing, (subject-) matter, affair’. The Latin res, originally denoted a legal case or a matter of concern, and it is in this ‘case’ that it is related to ‘judgement’. A ‘thing’ implies something present-at-hand, an object of neutral contemplation, in contrast to ready-at-hand equipment and to human beings. This concept of the thing is especially associated with Descartes’ view that the self is a res cogitans, a ‘thinking thing’. We have distinguished a number of senses of the word “thing”: 1. the ‘present-at-hand’: the things of nature (the plants in the garden); 2. the ready-to-hand understood as instruments or equipment: pliers, clock, whiteboard marker, eraser, computer, etc;  3. a wider sense that includes stones, plants, etc., but also events: ‘plans, resolutions, thoughts, temperaments, deeds, the historical’; 4. the widest sense which includes 1 and 2, but also anything that is ‘a something not nothing’: the number 5, luck, courage.

We examined various accounts of the thing:  the physicist’s account of a sunset and a table; a thing as the occupant of a certain spatio-temporal position; Leibniz’s view that a thing is a ‘particular this’ independently of its spatio-temporal location; a thing as the unity of a manifold of perceptible qualities or categories (the thing as a ‘one’); and as a form superimposed on matter (our discussions of Plato’s forms and ideas). The most natural view of the thing is that it is a bearer of properties. It fits with the correspondence theory of truth. An assertion involves a subject and a predicate, corresponding to a bearer and its properties: ‘the structure of the thing coheres with the structure of the assertion’: the coherence theory of truth. What we understand as truth and the grammar of language as a way of knowing are inseparable.

‘The “natural” is always historical’, however, for we who are moderns. We have come to see that we view what the Greeks understood as the ‘natural’ view is an old prejudice originated by Plato and Aristotle. But we would need to ‘bring into play the whole of Greek existence, their gods, their art, their state, their knowledge, in order to experience what it means to uncover the like of a thing’. For the answer to the question ‘What is a thing?’ is not a proposition, but ‘the beginning of a change of our former attitude to things, a change of questioning and assessment, of seeing and deciding, in short: of Human Being in the midst of beings’. This is a true paradigm shift.

In the 1960s, our street slang referred to our being in the world as ‘our thing’: “It’s your thing” was a very popular saying among us (see above discussion of thing as ‘case’). In this sense, to thing meant ‘to assemble, gather’, and takes a thing to be something that ‘assembles’ the ‘fourfold’, earth, sky, gods and mortals. ‘The cup is a thing not in the Roman sense of res, nor in the sense of an ens as the medievals represented it, nor in the modern sense of a represented object. The cup is a thing insofar as it ‘things’, according to the German philosopher Heidegger.  By thinging, it detains a while earth and sky, the divinities and the mortals: that is, it creates a world; by detaining, the thing ‘brings the four close to each other in their distances’. The question ‘What is a thing?’ brings a whole world into play.

If the work of art is a thing, what kind of “thing” is it?

Why we have come to View Art as “Subjective”:

Rene Descartes

To attempt to understand what the essence of art is, we need to speak about subject and object and to question the popular belief that “All art is subjective”. Object comes from the Latin objectum, literally “what is thrown (jacio) or placed against (ob)”.  In our being-in-the-world, we encounter the beings/things/entities that encounter us within the world. Beings come up against, en-counter, confront us, as they stand over against us.

Object has come to have many meanings: 1. a real object, 2. an intentional object, an object of a subject or of an intentional attitude such as knowledge, love or curiosity. A real object (e.g. an undiscovered island or planet) need not be the object of any subjective attitude, and an intentional object (e.g. the unicorn I dream about) need not be a real object.  Every object is an object for a subject, and not every being/thing is an object, since, for example, natural processes occur without being objects for a subject.

The category of “object” was alien to the Greeks. In its place stood pragma ‘a thing done, deed, thing, etc.’, that with which one has to do and deal – what is present for concernful dealings with things’. Remember the categories in which the Greeks classified things: the physical (rocks, the things that come forth from themselves in nature); the phenomena (artifacts, the things produced by human hands);  the chromata (things insofar as they are in use and stand at our disposal: they can be physica such as rocks or phenomena the things especially made); the pragmata the things insofar as we have to do with them at all, whether we work on them, use them, transform them, or we only look at them and examine them: pragmata with regard to practice: here praxis is all doing meaning practical use or moral action which also includes poiesismathemata the things that can be learned and taught: things insofar as they are in any respect whatsoever.

 Subject comes from the Latin subjectum, literally ‘what is thrown under’. Originally it differed little in meaning from substantia, lit. ‘what stands under’. Subject is ambiguous, meaning: 1. the underlying substratum or subject of predication, inquiry, e.g. “The book is green”, 2. the human subject. The Greeks knew nothing at all about man as an I-subject. How did a word that originally applied to everything come to be used especially for the human being? In the West, with the new freedom following the decline of traditional Christianity, human being becomes the centre around which everything else revolves and thus the subject, what underlies, par excellence. This paradigm shift occurs during the Renaissance. The human subject may be a disembodied I, whose certainty determines what there is. But it need not be: Nietzsche’s subject is embodied and governed by desire and passion more than by thought, but Nietzsche’s “I” is still Cartesian in that it is the arbiter of being and value.

Perhaps what we have come to take for granted as art is based on a misguided philosophical theory and is a central feature of our fallen modernity. The subject-object model ignores the world that is a precondition of our encounters with objects or beings as such: ‘”World” is something in which one can live (one cannot live in nor can one love an object).  The subject-object model implies that the subject and the object have the same mode of being, are both present-at-hand and things in the same manner. The subject-object model ‘thematizes’ entities, makes them conspicuous, neglecting what we see out of the corner of our eye, what we are vaguely, unobtrusively aware of. The subject-object model suggests that our primary mode of access to things is cognition or theoretical knowledge (our ways of knowing).  It implies that the subject is separated from the object by a gulf or barrier (like a snail in its shell), and its access to the object is mediated by a representation. The subject-object model suggests that a person is primarily an I or ego, detached from the body, the world and the They, and that one is aware of oneself by reflection on the I. In fact, it states that what Human Being is primarily aware of is itself in what it deals with (all things are pragmatic, and all things are equipment or tools and their value is determined by their ‘usefulness’).

Modern human being is not simply mistakenly regarded as an “I”/ the subject. An “I” is a subject, and to that extent he or she is not Human Being. This ‘subjectivity’ is descended from Descartes’ quest for an ‘absolute and unshakeable foundation’, but it has gone beyond Cartesian confines. The subject is no longer an individualized I: it is embodied man, even collective man. It is no longer restrained by a barrier; its dominance of producible and manipulable objects is unrestrained. Objects are still represented, but this means not that human being has a mental picture of them but that it is human being that decides whether and what they are (“art”, for instance). Everything is an object for this subject: there are no unexplored areas or aspects of the world beyond human beings’ theoretical and practical reach. Subjectivity, and the ‘objectivization’ it involves, may go so far that ‘subjects’ disappear in favour of a comprehensive utilizability or ‘usefulness’, and humanity becomes a ‘human resource’ to be managed and exploited like any other material, the threat of which grows exponentially in the technological world-view.

The subject-object model has given rise to the contrast between subjectivism (idealism) and objectivism (realism). Both alternatives are mistaken, since the subject-object model is misguided based on the points mentioned above, and because the subject and object are correlative: a subject has an object that stands on its own two feet, and an object is always an object for a subject. The distinction between the objective and the subjective is relative and shifting. Thus whenever the question is raised whether e.g. time, world, art or being is subjective, the replies are that they cannot be, since Human Being is not a subject, and if they are subjective, they are also objective, indeed ‘more objective than any possible object’, or ‘earlier than any subjectivity and objectivity’.

Art as Representation:

The manner of our seeing in the arts (and aesthetics comes from the Greek aisthesis which has to do with sense perception) has come to be primarily determined by our understanding of representation. If we look at the word re-present-ation, we can see that it means “that which is responsible for or occasions the making ‘present’ before us”. There are many ways that we can make something “present” before us. A representation is a performance, presentation, introduction, an idea, conception, imagination, etc., and each of these in some way makes some thing ‘present’ for us.

The views that are commonly asserted regarding the essence of art (and these are captured in the knowledge framework provided by the IB) is that it involves all of the ways of knowing that we are considering in the TOK course. Art, as is commonly understood, is a 1.representing; 2. judgement; 3.involving interest, emotions, etc. with emphasis on both the artist and the audience rather than on the work itself.

Representation is a letting something be seen, not something that is itself seen, like a picture or a painting. Seeing a painting or a picture, and seeing something in a painting or a picture, are quite different from seeing things in the flesh. Our Facebook walls, for example, open up a world for others on ourselves, but they are a quite shallow world. The page cannot convey the primary experience of the thoughts and emotions experienced in the capture of the pictures. The Wall closes down the experience of the real world and, we could say, operates in an opposite or opposing way from the work of art. With Facebook (or any other social media) there is both a simultaneous ‘hiddenness’ (hiding) and ‘unhiddenness’ (revealing) going on that is a characteristic of the logos itself, but this concealing/revealing is much like the shadows in Plato’s allegory of the Cave and the light that reveals things is a diffused light.

Our seeing or beholding is permeated by the language and categories of representation: We do not so much primarily and originally see objects and things; at first we speak about them; more precisely we do not express what we see, rather we see what one another say about the thing or matter. Our ‘personal knowledge’ is primarily a ‘shared knowledge’ for in the ‘sharing’ is determined how we will understand the matter or thing. There is a close affinity between the representational theory of perception and the correspondence theory of truth: both involve representations in the soul copying beings outside.

Representation goes with a view of the self as a subject: in Kant “the I was forced back again to an isolated subject, which accompanies representations in an ontologically quite indefinite way”, according to the German philosopher, Heidegger. Heidegger rejects this because it misrepresents our being-in-the world, and because Kant’s view does adequately represent our human-centred attitude to the world.

Representation can also mean ‘to make something stand (fast) in advance before us’. Art expresses how what we call ‘truth’ brings chaotic becoming to a standstill, converting it into a ‘static constancy’. We can also speak of ‘representation’ as meaning ‘to bring before’ a court, or a standing in for something or someone else (empowerment/empowering). Then it suggests that human beings are the judges who decide what being is and what qualifies as beings, who lay down the law and apply it to beings; what art is and what qualifies as art i.e. our ‘subjectivity’ expresses the ‘value’ of some thing. To be is then to-be-represented, to be presented before the bench of ‘judgement’. This is Descartes’ main achievement, not that he regarded the ego as a thing, but that he equated being with being-represented by a subject. It does not matter whether the subject is a pure ego or embodied ego or self. What matters is that everything comes to human beings for judgement. The two central features of modernity are that human beings are the centre of beings as a whole, the subject to which they are all referred (what is sometimes referred to as humanism), and that the beingness of beings (what some thing is) as a whole is conceived as the being-represented of the producible and explainable i.e. what we do in mathematics and the physical sciences.

‘To produce’ is to ‘lead or bring forward’ and is a type of ‘revealing’ that is often linked with representation to suggest the relationship of Cartesianism and technology. Two features of representation help to put human beings at the centre. First, representation means ‘to represent something’ in the sense of ‘to count, stand for something, to cut a fine figure’. Second, the reflexive representation stresses the subject: ‘every human representing is by an easily misinterpreted figure of speech a “self-representing”. This converges with Descartes’ view that whenever I think about anything I also think that I think. In Representation the representing and the representer are always co-represented as well. From this we can discern why “art is subjective” is the commonly held view. Because that which can be represented in art is not calculable, we speak of art in a pejorative sense when it comes to discussing its ‘truth’.

Representation gives a new sense to the equation of being with presence. For the Greeks being was ‘presence’. Greek presence concerns the ‘presencing of beings into the realm of the unhidden’. The closest Greek counterpart to representation is noein, (to think, etc.): ‘dwelling in the unhidden’, receptive rather than intrusive, and was concerned as much with the whole, unhiddenness as such, as with individual entities. Representation is the autocratic interrogation of and jurisdiction over entities i.e. it determines what will be defined as art for human subjectivity has come to represent the whole. From this representing, we can come to understand how technology is a ‘knowing’ and a ‘making’ and how it is a co-penetration of the arts and sciences.

Poetry and the Imagination: The Distinction between Poetry and Prose

Poesie, comes from the Greek poiesis, ‘making, fabrication, production, poetry, poem’, which in turn comes from poiein, ‘to make, to do’. Aristotle distinguishes poiesis, ‘making’ – which essentially has an end-product, a poiema – from praxis, ‘action’ – which does not. That the Greeks gave this inherently general name to poetry in particular is ‘evidence for the pre-eminence of this art within Greek art in general’ (Heidegger). Poesie has a narrower meaning than poiesis, applying especially to verse in contrast to prose.

Our idea of prose comes from the Latin dictare, ‘to say repeatedly, dictate, compose’. This has a wider meaning than Poesie or ‘poetry’. It applies to all creative writing, including novels, not only verse. The verb has the flavour of ‘to dispose, order, and shape’. In the wide sense, our understanding of ‘prose’ means ‘to invent, create, project’, but it is distinct from ‘untrammeled invention’.  For the essence of art, it happens that art in the midst of beings clears an open place in whose openness everything is other than before’. Art changes the way we ‘view’ the world; and this involves not only ‘sense perception’, but also our disposition or comportment (emotion as a WOK) toward beings/things and world. All artists, if they are true artists, attempt to change the way we see so that the world will give us new possibilities and new potentialities.


The birch tree looks different in different seasons, weathers and perspectives, but I take it to be the same tree, not by elaborate comparisons of and inferences from its changing aspects; I have ‘always already’ taken it to be the same tree. Since the self-identical tree is not strictly given to me, the ‘positing of something “like” is thus an invention and fabrication. This inventive character is the essence of reason and thinking, the imagination. So before we think in the usual sense, we must invent. Kant ‘was the first to specifically notice and think through the inventive character of reason in his doctrine of the transcendental imagination. Even our words for sense-impressions – ‘red, green, sour, etc’ – depend on the fabrication of a likeness, sameness and constancy that are not given in the throng of sensations. ‘The categories of reason are horizons of fabrication, a fabrication that first clears  for what encounters us that free place, in which it is set up and from which it can appear as a constant, as a standing object. All thinking is ‘inventive’, but not all thinking is ‘poetic’, nor is it all ‘thoughtful’. (Heidegger) Here one can see how the principle of reason establishes the framework of “fabrication”, the knowledge framework, that is the essence of technology as a way of knowing and that pre-determines how we view the world.

‘Language itself is invention, writing, composing verses in the essential sense’ (Heidegger, OWA, 61/199). That is, language ‘first brings the entity as an entity into the open’ by naming it. It is ‘projective saying’ and this saying is invention, writing, composing: ‘the saying of the world and the earth, […] the saying of the unhiddenness of beings’ (OWA, 61/198). Hence ‘Poesie, invention, write, compose verses in the narrow sense, is the most original Invention, write, compose verses in the essential [i.e. wide] sense. […] Poesie happens in language because language safeguards the original essence of invention, writing, composing verses. Building and forming by contrast happen always already and always only in the open of the saying and naming’ (OWA, 61/199). Poesie, art in the form of language, is prior to the other arts – architecture (‘building’) and painting and sculpture (‘forming’) – since they operate in the realm already opened up by language (understood as conventions). Creative language, language that names things for the first time, in contrast to language as a means of communicating what is already disclosed, is Inventing, writing, composing verses in a narrow sense, i.e. poetry.

William Blake
William Blake

The German poet Hölderlin and the English poet, William Blake play a crucial role in the recovery of being. Hölderlin was torn between two loves: Greece and its gods, Germany and its God as Blake was torn by the traditional understanding of Christianity and its gods and England and his poetic attempt at “the recovery of Paradise”. Both Blake and Hölderlin were poets’ poets, concerned about the nature of poetry and the poet’s place in the cosmic order. Five of Hölderlin’s sayings about poetry as interpreted by Heidegger are considered here (all of these can be said to apply to Blake):

  1. Inventing, writing, composing ‘is the most innocent of all occupations’. Poetry is play with language, inventing a realm of images to inhabit, with no decisions that incur guilt.
  2. ‘Language, the most dangerous of all goods, is given to man so that he can testify to what he is’. Language opens up beings, and makes world and history possible. Humanity testifies to its central position by the worlds successively created and destroyed throughout history. By opening up beings, language exposes us to danger from them. Language is simplified to become our common possession; a message from the gods is diluted for mortal consumption: hence language puts us in danger of delusion.
  3. ‘Much men have learnt. Have called by their names many of those in heaven/Since we have been a conversation/And able to hear from each other.’ (Hölderlin) Language is essential to human beings, and language is essentially conversation, which involves both speaking and hearing, a giving an account. A single coherent conversation requires the identification of stable beings that persist through the flux of time. When we name things, and name the gods, a world appears. Naming the gods is a response to their claim on us. Our response is a fateful act for which we take responsibility.
  4. ‘But what is lasting the poets found’. Poets name, and thus invent, beings, bringing order and measure (i.e. being) to the measureless onrush of time and thus grounding human existence in the ‘lasting’.
  5. ‘Full of acquirements, but poetically man dwells upon this earth’. (Heidegger) Poetry names beings and grounds human life. Poetry makes language possible. Poetry endangers the poet: “… fellow poets, us it behooves to stand/Bare-headed beneath God’s thunder-storms,/To grasp the Father’s ray, no less, with our own two hands/ And wrapping in song the heavenly gift,/To offer it to the people” (Hölderlin). The apparent innocence of poetry disguises the danger. The poet’s free creativity has two constraints: the ‘hints’ of the gods and the ‘voice of the people’, the legends/stories that he has to interpret. The poet is a ‘medium’, between the gods and the people, standing in the between where it is decided who and what humanity is and where humanity is to dwell. The poet is, essentially, a prophet.

Hölderlin does not give the eternal essence of poetry. He says what poetry must be in the ‘impoverished time’ between the departure of the old gods and the arrival of the new god. The attempt drove him mad. What he said of Oedipus applies to himself: ‘King Oedipus has an eye too many perhaps.’

Aletheia and Truth

Aletheia is Greek for ‘truth; truthfulness, frankness, sincerity’. Alethes is ‘true; sincere, frank; real, actual’. There is also a verb, aletheuein, ‘to speak truly, etc’. The words are related to lanthanein, with an older form lethein, ‘to escape notice, be unseen, unnoticed’, and lethe, ‘forgetting, forgetfulness’. An initial a- in Greek is often privative, like the Latin in- or the Germanic un-. (The ‘privative alpha’ occurs in many Greek-derived words in English: ‘a-nonymous’, ‘a-theism’, etc.) Alethes, aletheia are generally accepted to be a-lethes, a-letheia, that which is ‘not hidden or forgotten’, or he who ‘does not hide or forget’. (These characteristics/meanings of truth can all be applied to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and doing so will provide an approach or an opening to an understanding of that play).

We reach the ‘essence of truth’, the ‘openness of the open’, from two directions: from ‘reflection on the ground of the possibility of correctness (adaequatio, ‘truth as correctness’ or ‘correspondence’)’ and from ‘recollection of the beginning (aletheia)’. Aletheuein is ‘to take out of hiddenness, to uncover; aletheia is ‘uncovering’; and alethes is ‘unhidden.

This has three implications: 1. Truth is not confined to explicit assertions and discrete mental, primarily theoretical, attitudes such as judgments, beliefs and representations. The world as a whole, not just entities within it, is unhidden – unhidden as much by moods (emotion as a way of knowing) as by understanding (reason as a way of knowing). 2. Truth is primarily a feature of reality – beings, being and world – not of thoughts and utterances (reason and language as ways of knowing). Beings, things, entities are, of course, unhidden to us, and we disclose them ‘to unconceal; -ing; -ment’, they can have an active sense: ‘alethes means: 1. unconcealed said of beings, 2. grasping the unconcealed as such, i.e. being unconcealing’. But beings, etc. are genuinely unconcealed; they do not just agree with an assertion or representation. 3. Truth as ‘unconcealment’ explicitly presupposes concealment or hiddenness. Human being and Being is in ‘untruth as well as truth. This means that ‘falling’ human being misinterprets things. (‘Falling’ has the character of being lost in the publicness of the They, or being absorbed in the shadows of the Cave. Macbeth’s first soliloquy: Act I sc. Vii and the imagery/metaphors associated with ‘leaping’ and ‘falling’.)

‘Untruth’ is not plain ‘falsity’, nor is it ‘hiddenness’: it is ‘disguisedness’ of the truth. In Shakespeare’s plays Julius Caesar and Macbeth, ‘untruth’ is still not ‘falsity’, but ‘hiding, concealing’. What conceals is no longer human being, but Being. There are two types of unconcealing: (a) of the open, the world or beings as a whole; (b) of particular beings within this open space. The first type (a) involves concealment: everything was hidden before the open was established, and concealment, persisting in that the open, reveals only certain aspects of reality, not its whole nature. It is not possible for human beings to have knowledge of the whole. Each area of knowledge provides a ‘field’ or an ‘opening’ in which the beings that it studies are illuminated and hidden simultaneously. The second type (b) involves a concealment that we overcome ‘partially and case by case’. Plato, in assimilating truth to light, and of the light to Love indicates the ‘openness’ that is necessary for things to be revealed in the ‘unconcealment’ (Stage 4 of the Cave where the human being is outside of the Cave; the journey outside of the Cave occurs ‘within’ the human being and the Cave). We choose, like Macbeth for instance, the idea of hiddenness or darkness over the light and ‘unhiddenness’ (thus the many metaphors of darkness and disguise, hiddenness and forgetfulness in the play; after the killing of Duncan, Macbeth loses all sense of ‘otherness’ and becomes a tyrant), and thus the privative force of a-letheia: the light is constant – never switched on or off (Jean Paul Sartre’s play No Exit as a reversal of this but also a denial) – and reveals everything there is to anyone who looks. We lose the idea of the open (and the comportment of Love), which must persist throughout our unconcealing of beings. For Plato, morality is purely internal; and it is here in the revealing that morality, ethics and ontology are given substance (as they are, for instance, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth).

In Plato, aletheia ‘comes under the yoke of the idea’. Idea, from the Greek idein, ‘to see’, refers to the visual aspect of entities or things. The ascent of the prisoners out of the cave is a progressive opening of their vision to this idea and the idea of the Good from which all ideas spring (although we cannot speak of the Good as an ‘entity’ in the sense of a ‘thing’ or ‘object’ whose idea it is). Hence aletheia is no longer primarily a characteristic of beings in themselves: it is ‘yoked’ together with the soul, and consists in a homoiösis, a ‘likeness’, between them which is generated through Beauty (or Eros). This can be understood as a triad (or triangle): the soul + the idea + Beauty. Homoiösis has since become adaequatio (in the Latin interpretation of the word, ‘correctness’ or ‘coherence’) and then ‘agreement’; and since Descartes, the relation between soul and beings has become the subject-object relation, mediated by a ‘representation’, the degenerate descendant of Plato’s idea. Truth becomes correctness, and its ‘elbow-room’, the open, or the experience of Beauty and of eros, is neglected. (‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’).

Some counterclaims to this version of truth: It is not certain that alethes comes from a- and lanthanein. Even if it does, it hardly ever means ‘unhidden’ in Homer, Hesiod (the earliest authors) and later authors, but has three main senses: the correctness of speech and belief (epistemological); the reality of being (ontological); the genuineness, truthfulness and conscientiousness of an individual or character (‘existential’). These three aspects of aletheia are united in Plato (and also for Shakespeare). The ascent from the cave is an ascent of being-in-the-world?, of knowledge and of existence. Throughout the history of philosophy, it is assumed that if Plato regards truth as correctness of apprehension, he has jettisoned its other senses; while if another sense reappears, this is because Plato is indecisive and ‘ambiguous’. The three senses are fused together in Plato. Interpreting truth as unhiddenness would not save it from modern subjectivity: unhiddenness must be unhiddenness to someone.

Plato says that the things we ‘make’ by holding up a mirror are not beings that are ‘unhidden’, and that the things painters make are not alethe (Republic, 596d,e). But perhaps this may be a joke of Plato’s since he himself has written a book, a dialogue, which is a ‘mirror’ of the being of Socrates. How is it that the things in mirrors and in paintings are not ‘unhidden’? How are we to understand how it can be said that to make things by holding up a mirror, we must take ‘making’ as Techne in the Greek sense? Are things no more hidden in a mirror than in their being in the world? To discuss this at length would be to have to examine the nature of the Platonic dialogue and particularly the dialogue Phaedrus which is the dialogue on writing, and this cannot be done here. In the allegory of the Cave the shadows, too, require light; but in their revealing the things that they are, the things are not fully ‘shown’.

(Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 3 sc. 2 may be of help here: “… let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”) Plato’s (and Shakespeare’s, through his use of personification: the feminine for the soul/the masculine for the body or material) point is that things in a mirror are not real, not alethe in the ontological sense, but that their revealing requires a special human beholding, a beholding that takes place in the open, that the mimetic art is directed to us and to the Forms themselves and what is created are the ‘images’ and outward appearances of these entities.

Correspondence theory of truth/truth as agreement

In the correspondence theory of truth, the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to the world, and whether it accurately describes (i.e., corresponds with) that world.

Correspondence theories claim that true beliefs and true statements correspond to the actual state of affairs e.g. 1+2=3; the earth revolves around the sun; autumn is followed by winter (or here in Singapore, the rainy season follows the dry season); WWI began early August, 1914; Kant is a philosopher; the street is noisy outside; this room is air-conditioned, etc. This type of theory attempts to posit a relationship between thoughts or statements on the one hand, and things or facts on the other (a correspondence, in other words).

This class of theories holds that the truth or the falsity of a representation (a model, a theory) is determined solely by how it relates to a reality; that is, by whether it accurately describes that reality. (It is the truth test of the scientific method. Does the theory correspond, or account for, the behaviour of the object under study?). “A book is on a desk” is true if and only if, there is in the world a book and a desk and the book is related to the desk by virtue of being on it. If any of the three pieces (the book [subject], the desk [object], and the relation between them [‘is on’] which correspond respectively to the subject, object, and verb of the statement) is missing, the statement is false.

We see here the importance of language as a way of knowing (WOK). The “thing” and its “qualities” must correspond to a reality. The importance of grammar in our language stems from our construction of truth (the book, the desk, and the being of both [“is”] must all be established. A subject must have predicates (qualities).

Most advocates of correspondence theories have been ontological realists; that is, they believe that there is a ‘real’ world external to the minds of all humans. This is in contrast to metaphysical idealists who hold that everything that exists is, in the end, just an idea in some mind. However, some believe that it is not strictly necessary that a correspondence theory be married to ontological realism. It is possible to hold, for example, that the facts of the world determine which statements are true and to also hold that the world (and its facts) is but a collection of ideas in the mind. But this begs the question: what, in fact, is a fact and from where do “facts” come from i.e. the mind? Metaphysics or a real world? Does the real world ‘give us facts’ or are the ‘facts’ grounded in our understandings and interpretations of the world?

Truth as correspondence: The proposition (statement, assertion) is directed towards “the facts” and the state of affairs about which it says something. Truth is a correspondence, grounded in ‘correctness’ or agreement, between the proposition and the thing. Something is either ‘true’ or ‘false’. To be ‘false’ is to be ‘incorrect’ regarding the proposition and the state of affairs or it does not ‘correspond’ with the ‘facts’. “Correctness” is the criteria of truth in the correspondence theory of truth. We already know what the essence (“what” it is) of truth is in advance. This is what we call “shared knowledge” in TOK. This “shared knowledge” comes to determine and form what we understand as “personal knowledge” in advance. Something is either ‘true’ or ‘false’. To be ‘false’ is to be ‘incorrect’ regarding the proposition and the state of affairs or it does not ‘correspond’ with the ‘facts’. “Correctness” is the criteria of truth in the correspondence theory of truth.

The theory of truth as correspondence is only as plausible or usable as the phenomena are known to us in advance; that is, we must have already a pre-determined understanding of what some thing is. The theory succeeds in its appeal to the real world only in so far as the real world is reachable by us. (This is shown not to be the case in quantum physics where what is reachable is only known through the manner of our questioning and the equipment that we use to question. The manner of the questioning and the equipment are already pre-determined).

The direct realist believes that we directly know objects as they are. Such a person can wholeheartedly adopt a correspondence theory of truth. (But the direct realist does not have “knowledge” of these objects. The requirement for knowledge of these objects is “skipped over”. This is the case with those who hold to logical positivism; and our TOK course has been constructed by logical positivists. They have a pre-determined understanding of what knowledge and truth are.)

The rigorous idealist believes that there are no real objects. The correspondence theory appeals to imaginary undefined entities, so it is incoherent. (What is called “reality” fades the more precisely we view it, which is the experience in quantum physics). Most serious mathematicians are to be found here. The skeptic believes that we have no knowledge. The correspondence theory is simply false. Other positions hold that we have some type of awareness, perception, etc. of real-world objects which in some way falls short of direct knowledge of them. But such an indirect awareness or perception is itself an idea in one’s mind, so that the correspondence theory of truth reduces to a correspondence between ideas about truth and ideas of the world, whereupon it becomes a coherence theory of truth.

Truth as agreement

Truth now has two main senses: 1. ‘true, real, genuine’, in contrast to ‘apparent, sham, fake, flawed, etc.’: true love, gold, friends, etc.; 2. ‘true, factually correct, etc.’: a true account, statement, story, theory, etc. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘truth’ in sense 2 as: ‘conformity with facts, agreement with reality’, and thus embodies the correspondence theory of truth. This theory is usually supposed to have been originated by Aristotle, but this interpretation might be incorrect and we might be able to locate its origins in Plato and its full flowering in the scholastic definition of truth as adaequatio rei/rerum et intellectus, ‘conformity of thing(s) and the intellect’.

The German philosopher Heidegger attacks this view of truth, or at least its primacy, from several directions:

  1. What agrees with reality must be seen as a present-at-hand entity, an assertion or proposition distinct from the reality it is about. When I talk, I do not normally focus on the words I utter or hear. My mind is on what the talk is about. I often know what was said without noticing or remembering the precise words uttered. Silence can convey a message more effectively than words. There are no eternal propositions distinct from what is said on particular occasions, nor do words have fixed meanings or connotations, distinct from the entities they apply to and our beliefs about these entities. Here there is nothing, distinct from what the talk is about, to agree with it. What is said in the talk is, more or less, just what the talk is about. The agreement theory of truth, like the representative theory of perception, highlights a mental, logical or purely sensory entity intervening between ourselves and reality – a meaning, proposition, sensation, representation -when even if there are such entities we do not usually notice or attend to them. I can nevertheless focus on a sentence or assertion, such as ‘The cat is on the mat’, and ask whether it agrees with reality. Then I treat the words as present-at-hand. If the sentence does agree with reality, then it is true, or rather ‘correct’.
  2. A chunk of reality with which a given sentence or assertion agrees must also be seen as present-at-hand, severed from its connections with other entities within the world. When I assert ‘The hammer is heavy’, the workshop, nails, wood, and carpenter – everything that makes a hammer the tool that it is – are out of sight. Out of sight, too, are any reasons why one should care whether the assertion is true or not. If truth is valuable, and ‘truth’ amounts to ‘true propositions’, why not memorize the list of books located in our Resource Centre? Nevertheless, we can, and do, ‘de-world’ chunks of reality, and then the assertions that bear the equally present-at-hand relation of agreement with them are ‘correct’.
  3. Assertions or utterances in general, whether or not we interpret their truth as agreement or correspondence with reality, are not the primary locus of truth: ‘Proposition is not the place of truth; truth is the place of the proposition’. Truth is not primarily a property of assertions or judgements; it is what enables us, unlike stones, plants and animals, to make any assertions or judgements at all. Before a proposition can be uttered or understood, the world around us and entities within it must be disclosed in a way that cannot be equated with a set of discrete beliefs or expressed in a set of discrete propositions. In search of the cat, I enter the room and I am aware of the room as a whole. Then I see the cat on the mat, and say ‘It’s on the mat’. My seeing the cat on the mat amounts to a judgement or belief, and its being on the mat can be expressed in a proposition. But my overall awareness of the room cannot. I am aware of the room as a whole, not in all its details. Some details I am hazily aware of, I could not put them into words. I am aware of the general shape of the room, of the ‘involvement totality’, of the interconnections between areas and items, not of discrete chunks. Explicit assertion presupposes all this. The same goes for a scientific theory and the scientific method. It is not primarily a set of propositions. It is primarily a new way of looking at things, or certain things, and this, in turn, presupposes the familiar old way of looking at things that enables scientists to eat their meals and find their way to, and around, the laboratory. Truth does not require us to memorize the booklist of the Resource Centre. It involves having something to research, wanting to read a book or research other media, knowing how to do it and where to find the location of the resources, in short, knowing our way around in the space in which particular truths matter to us and can be unearthed. Correspondence theorists of truth typically deal not with the truths that we discover in the context in which we discover them, but with the sort of truth that gets ‘passed along in “further retelling”‘ (BT, 155), ‘The cat is on the mat’ and ‘Snow is white’. Heidegger’s account of truth as ‘unhiddenness’ has several consequences. Truth is no longer something we can or need to be certain of in a Cartesian manner. What we can be certain of is propositions: I am certain that such and such is so. The quest for truth is not a quest for certainty about what we already know or believe, but a quest for the disclosure of hitherto unknown realms. ‘Truth’ no longer contrasts with ‘falsity’. Propositions can be true or false, correct or incorrect. But false propositions presuppose an open realm of truth as much as true ones (e.g. the shadows in the Cave). Falsity, e.g. mistaking a bush for a person in the twilight, has three conditions: 1. The world is already disclosed to me and I can discover things within it: something is approaching. 2. I do not just gape at things, I interpret them as something.
  4. I know enough about my surroundings to know that a person is something that can appear in the environment; I would not mistake a bush for the President of the United States or the cube root of 69. Error is a localized distortion within a realm of truth. If ‘truth’ contrasts with anything, it is with ‘untruth’.


Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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