As I was eating a hummus and spinach sandwich on pumpernickel bread today, I was thinking of truth statements. In particular, I was wondering if a statement is true when it is true but not known to be so by its speaker. I am sure that the ancient Greeks, the medieval schoolmen, and contemporary analytics have dealt and still deal extensively with such elementary issues, but I do not know much in the philosophy of language realm. So, please excuse my childlike foray into alien territory.
I am not interested today in the simple version of my question, which would involve a true statement by a person in a state of ignorance—or at least in a state of unconfirmed opinion. If we follow the general Platonic and Aristotelian distinction between knowledge and opinion in the dialogues and in the Posterior Analytics, we see that knowledge has to do with what is necessary and that it is known as necessary, whereas opinion concerns that which is not necessarily so. Opinion appears to cover far more phenomena, including “knowledge” (or an awareness that is a shadow of knowledge) of things that could be otherwise and assertions about the world that are not grounded in knowledge. So, for example, a man who asserts that the hypotenuse of a right triangle is the longest side without knowing the relationship given in the Pythagorean theorem knows such differently than a man who asserts that the hypotenuse of a right triangle is the longest side while understanding the Pythagorean theorem. In a way, both assertions are true. Yet, the truth in the soul of the speaker differs. I reckon that the analytics have a rich vocabulary to map these distinctions, but I am ignorant of them.
My peculiar wondering today involves a more complicated and colorful case. Imagine two men, strangers to each other, are together on a train—one a pious though somewhat naive fellow on his way to a pilgrimage destination, the other a cynical, hedonistic type . . . you know, the typical European. These fellows begin to chat about various topics, when the worldy fellow exclaims, “It is most important to look out for #1.” The Christian nods in agreement, though slightly confused as to how the other fellow’s statement followed his previous stories. The train stops, and the hedonist disembarks. The train starts up again, and the Christian man ponders the wisdom of looking out for #1 and reminds himself that he ought never to judge people based on their statements; for their hideous actions and words often mask invisible pearls of heightened spirituality.
In this story, the self centered man’s claim is “It is most important to look out for #1.” To him, he is #1. He means that his actions should all be oriented toward maximizing his own good, however he conceives such. To the Christian, however, God is #1. Therefore, our pious fellow readily agrees with the hedonist’s statement, though the intended object of “number one” differs. Assuming that the Christian is correct in his ranking of the Good, what truth value does the hedonist’s statement have?
As I indulged in my spinach and hummus (such bestowals of divine beneficence upon the palate of man), these thoughts reminded me of Thomas’ discussion of ethics, mainly in the Prima Secundae of the Summa Theologiae, where he makes many useful distinctions to describe moral action. For an action to be moral, the agent must intend a good end and intend this end as good and known as good. For example, let us suppose a wicked assassin who intends to kill a good king. To simplify the example and avoid complicated political issues, let us assume that the king is truly good as the leader and that the assassin is evil. Let us also assume that the king suffers from some ailment that will shortly lead to his death without a special treatment. Well, in our story, the assassin puts what he thinks is poison in the king’s food, but it turns out that the poison is actually the medicine that the king needs to recover. So, the assassin performs a good deed in that he saves the king’s life. However, he did not intend to save the king’s life. He rather intended to kill the king, which surely appeared to him as a good, though he was mistaken. Thus, his deed is still wicked, as performed by him, though the act abstracted from him was good and led to good conseqences. For an action to be moral, the end of the action must be good, and it must be intended by its agent as good.
I think that these distinctions help to illuminate the problem with truth statements in complicated situations like the one previously mentioned. The hedonist claims that it is most important to “look out for”—let us say “serve”—number one. Abstracted from the hedonist’s intended meaning, the statement is arguably true, or at least true-ish. Theological nitpicking might claim that God’s own action of being God is more important than our creaturely action of serving God, but one might argue that, for human beings, there is no greater activity than serving / imitating / instantiating the presence of / worshipping God, or some such formulation. Casual conversations on trains are not treatises on the ultimate questions, and we must allow for some imprecision. However, the hedonist’s statement has nothing to do with God for the hedonist. There is no equivocation from his point of view; the self (or perhaps only himself) is the “#1” of his statement. Therefore, the statement is wrong, at least for him as he makes it. As I wrote above, there has to be a vocabulary for these phenomena. Those wily analytics, always parsing statements and doing the grunt work of philosophy! One has to admire them.
So, I propose that a statement can only be true, at least for its speaker, if it is a true statement and if its truth is intended and known by the speaker when he makes it. Is this a good theft from the treasures of the Scholastics?
On this fine May Day, allow me to share the following quotation from Walter Lippman that my friend Andrew sent me:
This is one of the paradoxes of the democratic movement—that it loves a crowd and fears the individuals who compose it—that the religion of humanity should have no faith in human beings.
The democrats dream in contradictions and fail to think much at all.
Such reminds me of the intellectual’s love of humanity but hatred for human beings; men are rather odd creatures.