One of the crucial paradoxes of the question of truth is that an attempt to answer it seems to only entail one possibly correct answer, whereas definitions of truth are multiple. That is to say, with truth, so to speak, there is very little margin for error, precisely because truth, in our intuitive understanding, is entirely opposed to error and falsehood. In so far as these ideas hold, at first glance it seems that truth cannot be relative: something is either true or it is not. Certainly, there are attempts to relativize truth, such as in post-modern philosophical thought, literature and art, whereby truth is, for example, relative to particular horizons, value systems and theoretical standpoints. But this type of relativization of truth is also a type of absolute statement: it states that all truth is relative and therefore does not allow for any exceptions to this definition.
It is this absolute quality of truth which perhaps makes it such a seductive object of inquiry. There is a sense in which, perhaps on an intuitive level, we understand that many of the values or positions that we or others may hold may in fact be false. Consider, for example, the sense in which social norms have changed over time. Within the American historical context, extreme forms of racism, clearly evinced in the historical legacies of slavery as well as segregation, were, until they were challenged, accepted as self-evident, going unchallenged. It is only over time that these values themselves changed, rendering such practices, in consequence, repugnant. From our contemporary historical horizon, it seems almost incomprehensible to assert that these values were once accepted. Certainly, this could be conceived as an argument for the relativization of truth: however, it is perhaps more so indicative of the sense in which an intuitive understanding of truth challenges our preconceptions, to the extent that without some type of fixed notion of truth we would be unable to grasp the error of such practices.
From personal experience, I can recall as a child that one of my parents’ acquaintances constantly made disparaging remarks about women. My parents themselves were not entirely pleased with these remarks, but being an old family friend, they did not challenge him on these remarks, instead letting him state his piece and hope for a change in subject matter. As a child, however, I did not merely accept that these statements were accurate: there was a sense in which I understood that such a position was entirely constituted by a falsehood, that there was something wrong about this way of looking at the world. Another example comes to mind on the same subject: one of my classmates often made belittling remarks about another classmate because of her weight problem. I knew that there was something wrong about this treatment: certainly, this could be attributed to me having been raised by ethically sound parents. However, at the same time, on an intuitive level I could feel the cruelty of this behavior, the fundamental misguidance of this way of treating another: how can this be explained if there is not some type of objective sense of truth, of what is right and wrong, which somehow guides us? We can either reject this guide or accept it, however, it remains there.
This means that if truth is notoriously difficult to define, the intuitive feeling that there is truth — a truth that is objective and absolute – also subsists. In other words, part of the struggle to understand what is truth is the intuition that there is a truth, even though we cannot define it. Certainly, in ethical issues, this definition could be more easily grasped: the need to be kind to others, an ethical obligation of community. However, as clearly demonstrated by the plurality of ethical systems and codes, even in ethics truth is notoriously difficult to define. On the one hand, we sense that there is truth, when we question the values that surround us, when we sense that something is incorrect about them; on the other hand, it becomes very difficult to assign and stipulate a correct and proper alternative to that which we can clearly discern to be fundamentally wrong, made up of lie, falsehood and error.
Sylvia Path in her novel The Bell Jar poignantly describes this aspect of truth. One of the key themes of the novel is the protagonist’s dissatisfaction with the values, mores and ethics expressed by those around her, namely, the glamorous bourgeois lifestyle of cosmopolitan life. In other words, this feeling of dissatisfaction with how life is lived somehow is spurred and motivated by the sentiment that this type of life is in some profound sense false. That is to say, there is an intuitive sense of truth, although it cannot be easily defined, which operates as a catalyst for exploration and investigation, at the same time as it may cause one to reject what others claim to be true.
In Plath’s novel there is a duality of rejection and longing which arguably characterizes the protagonist’s view towards life. For example, Plath’s narrator initially accepts the norms of the higher class, viewing social status, studies, and constant work as necessary to the materialist life of success and the gaining of social status. Accordingly, Plath’s narrator recalls her early value system: “All my life I’d told myself studying and reading and writing and working like mad was what I wanted to do, and it actually seemed to be true, I did everything well enough and got all A’s, and by the time I made it to college nobody could stop me.” (18) However, Plath’s novel chronicles precisely this “stopping”: the protagonist ultimately loses faith in these values, somehow finding them superficial. They are values that she intuitively feels distorts some real meaning of life, which she herself cannot define. This is arguably what the character psychologically deteriorates, instead of finding closure. The deterioration of the main character is evident, as unlike her previous, Plath’s narrator in fact “stopped”: “I hadn’t washed my hair for three weeks, either. I hadn’t slept for seven nights.” (67) Plath’s character sees the error her previous way of life, but is unable to supplement this approach with another.
Accordingly, what Plath’s novel arguably shows is that while it may be relatively facile for someone to detect the falsehoods of society, this does not mean that truth somehow magically appears at the surface. The gradual psychological deterioration of the protagonist in the novel can be attributed to precisely an understanding that how her contemporaries live their life, and how she lived her own life, is somehow untrue: but the attempt to grasp truth after this initial sensing of falsehood is a pure struggle.
In this regard, truth signifies something radically elusive, although at the same time, something that appear as lucid. Truth becomes lucid in the sense that we can see through various falsehood masquerading as truth: for example, in Plath’s book, the materialistic and hedonistic lifestyle as somehow expressive of what human existence ultimately entails. However, the next step, to actually claim to know what is true, to ultimately be able to accept some position in regard to existence as infallible and certain, is a wholly other matter. Whereas the detection of falsehood seems to imply that there does exist a truth that is objective and absolute, at the same time, grasping this truth is an arduous struggle, as Plath’s work in The Bell Jar also demonstrates.
Perhaps if truth will always remain elusive, for the human being, the understanding that there is truth and the struggle for it becomes essential. Truth is not something bought in a department store, like any other product, as Plath’s critique of materialism in The Bell Jar reminds us. However, the truth’s simultaneous lucidity and elusiveness is rather what defines it and makes it compelling: in this sense, truth is inseparable from the question “what is truth?”
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar.