Rebirth of Reason


Objectivism, "Contextual Knowledge" and the Correspondence Theory of Truth: Part 2
by William Scott Dwyer

Objectivism’s “Correspondence” Theory of Truth

Although Schwartz’s vital principle (that “a seemingly true conclusion derived from false premises is a false conclusion”) conflicts with the traditional correspondence theory of truth (in which a proposition is true if and only if it corresponds to reality), he does state during the Q&A that:
There is such a thing as truth and falsehood. People can have correct views and incorrect views based on whether what they know [i.e., what they believe] corresponds to what actually exists in reality independently of their knowing [i.e., believe] it.
Here Schwartz seems to be endorsing the very correspondence theory of truth that his vital principle rejects—which is not surprising, for Leonard Peikoff states explicitly that Objectivism’s concept of truth is the correspondence theory. But in so doing, Peikoff reveals a contradiction similar to Schwartz’s. According to Peikoff:
The concept of “truth” names a certain relationship between a proposition and the facts of reality. “Truth,” in Ayn Rand’s definition, “is the recognition of reality.” In essence, this is the traditional correspondence theory of truth: there is a reality independent of man; and there are certain conceptual products, propositions, formulated by human consciousness. When such a mental content corresponds or conforms to reality; when it constitutes a recognition of fact; then it is true. Conversely, when the content does not thus correspond; when it constitutes not a recognition of reality, but a contradiction to it; then it is false.
In keeping with Rand’s definition of truth as “the recognition of reality,” Peikoff equates a proposition’s “correspondence” to reality with a mind’s “recognition” of the fact expressed by the proposition. But a “recognition” of reality would not occur if one were to accept a true conclusion on the basis of false premises. In that case, although the mental content forming one’s conclusion would correspond or conform to reality, it would not constitute a recognition of reality. My dictionary (The American Heritage, 1991) defines “recognize” as:

1. To know to be something that has been perceived before: recognize a face.
2. To know or identify from past experience or knowledge: recognize hostility.

In other words, “recognize” implies knowledge of what is recognized. So, if I conclude on the basis of false premises that capitalism is better than socialism, then even though capitalism is better than socialism—even though my conclusion corresponds to reality—I do not “recognize” that capitalism is better, because I do not know that it is. Peikoff’s claim to the contrary, Rand’s definition of truth does not correspond(!) to a correspondence theory of truth.

My dictionary defines “truth” as “conformity to fact or actuality,” and states that “truth is most commonly used to mean correspondence with facts or with what actually occurred.” Similarly, according to a standard logic text, once sold under the auspices of Rand herself, “a true proposition is one which ‘corresponds to the facts’ or correctly describes the facts.” (Logic: An Introduction by Lionel Ruby, p. 329) The late George Walsh, professor of philosophy, Objectivist lecturer and former colleague of Dr. Peikoff, concurs with this definition. In an interview with Karen Reedstrom (now Karen Minto), Walsh states:
I have always held to the correspondence theory of truth. One way of stating this theory is in the words of Aristotle: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” (Full Context, January 1991, p. 9. Aristotle’s statement can be found in his Metaphysics, Book IV: Chapter 7, 1011b25-29.)
Walsh goes on to say,
I interpret this to mean that if Socrates is at the door, and if I say, “Socrates is at the door,” I am uttering a true statement. In other words, Socrates’ being at the door is a sufficient condition for my statement’s being true. I do not have to arrive at my conclusion by a valid process of reasoning. (Ibid.)
Nor, as we have seen, does he have to arrive at it from true premises.

Although Rand’s definition of truth does not conform to the traditional correspondence theory, as presented here, there is no evidence in her writings to suggest that she would have agreed with the principle that Schwartz is advocating (namely, that a seemingly true conclusion derived from false premises is a false conclusion). On the contrary, she has made statements suggesting precisely the opposite. For example, in a Q&A, she stated,
There are rational religious people. In fact, I was pleased and astonished to discover that some religious people support Objectivism. If you want to be a full Objectivist, you cannot reconcile that with religion; but that doesn't mean religious people cannot be individualists and fight for freedom. They can, and this country is the best proof of it. (Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A, edited by Robert Mayhew, p. 63)
Evidently, Rand did not think that a seemingly true conclusion (a belief in individualism) that is derived from false (religious) premises is therefore a false conclusion not shared by Objectivists.

Moreover, Rand may well have thought that she was expressing the traditional correspondence theory of truth, and was simply unaware that her definition contradicted it. This is born out by Peikoff’s previously quoted passage, in which he states that, according to Rand, “When [a proposition] corresponds or conforms to reality…then it is true.” (Peikoff, OPAR, 165)

Schwartz’s Subjectivism

Besides departing from a correspondence theory, Schwartz’s vital principle also makes truth relative and subjective. According to his principle, if you derive a true conclusion (e.g., that capitalism is better than socialism) from true premises, then it is true for you; but if I derive the same conclusion from false premises, then it is not true for me.

In commenting on the catch-phrase, “It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me,” Rand writes:
Truth is the recognition of reality. (This is known as the correspondence theory of truth.
[Not exactly]
The same thing [i.e., the same proposition] cannot be true and untrue at the same time and in the same respect. That catch phrase [“It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me”], therefore, means: a. that the Law of Identity is invalid [and] b. That there is no objectively perceivable reality, only some indeterminate flux which is nothing in particular, i.e., that there is no reality (in which case, there can be no such thing as truth)…(The purpose of that catch phrase is the destruction of objectivity.) (“Philosophical Detection,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp. 16, 17.)
Schwartz’s “vital principle” is bad enough by itself, but it is disastrous for a philosophy of Objectivism, because it represents the exact antithesis: subjectivism! As Peikoff puts it:
The subjectivist denies that there is any such thing as "the truth" on a given question, the truth which corresponds to the facts. On his view, truth varies from consciousness to consciousness as the processes or contents of consciousness vary [emphasis added]; the same statement may be true for one consciousness (or one type of consciousness) and false for another. The virtually infallible sign of the subjectivist is his refusal to say, of a statement he accepts: "It is true"; instead, he says: It is true -- for me (or for us)." There is no truth, only truth relative to an individual or a group -- truth for me, for you, for him, for her, for us, for them. (Peikoff, "Nazism and Subjectivism," The Objectivist, Jan. 1971, p. 9.)
To be sure, the same sentence -- the same string of words -- can be true for you but not for me, if I mean something different by it than you do, for just as the same word can symbolize different concepts, so the same sentence can express different propositions. But there is no way that the same proposition can be true for you but not for me, for if it is the same proposition, then it must have the same meaning for both of us. Therefore, if by a particular sentence, a person means a proposition that corresponds to the facts of reality, then the proposition is true even if he derives it from false premises -- even if he doesn't know that it's true.

Can an Arbitrary Proposition Be True?

It should be understood that a sentence that does not form a meaningful proposition in someone's mind can be neither true nor false. As Peikoff states:
A relationship between conceptual content and reality is a relationship between man's consciousness and reality. There can be no "correspondence" . . . without the mind that corresponds . . . . If a wind blows the sand on a desert island into configurations spelling out "A is A," this does not make the wind a superior metaphysician. The wind did not achieve any conformity to reality; it did not produce any truth, but merely shapes in the sand.

Similarly, if a parrot is trained to squawk "2 + 2 = 4," this does not make it a mathematician. The parrot's consciousness did not attain thereby any contact with reality or any relation to it, positive or negative . . . ; what it created was not truth or falsehood, but merely sounds. Sounds that are not the vehicle of conceptual awareness have no cognitive status." (OPAR, 165)
Unfortunately, Peikoff then draws the following non-sequitur:
An arbitrary claim emitted by a human mind is analogous to the shapes made by the wind or to the sounds of the parrot. Such a claim has no cognitive relationship to reality, positive or negative. The true is identified by reference to a body of evidence; it is pronounced “true” because it can be integrated without contradiction into a total context. The false is identified by the same means; it is pronounced “false” because it contradicts the evidence and/or some aspect of the wider context. The arbitrary, however, has no relation to evidence or context; neither term, therefore – “true” or “false” – can be applied to it.” (OPAR, pp. 165, 166)
Contrary to Peikoff, however, an arbitrary claim, which expresses a meaningful proposition, is not “analogous to the shapes made by the wind or to the sounds of the parrot,” for such a proposition either does or does not correspond to reality, and is therefore either true or false. To put it another way, whereas the shapes made by the wind or the sounds of a parrot are not a meaningful proposition (to the wind or parrot), an arbitrary claim understood by a human being is a meaningful proposition to the human being. That is the difference, and that is why a meaningful proposition, however, arbitrary, can be true or false, whereas meaningless shapes and sounds cannot.

For example, suppose I say, quite arbitrarily, “There is life on Venus.” If I know what I am saying – namely, that there is life on the second planet from the sun – then even though I offer no evidence of life on Venus, I have still uttered a meaningful statement, which is either true or false. Either there is life on Venus or not. If there is, then my statement corresponds to reality, and is true. If there is not, then it does not correspond to reality, and is false.

This is not to say that one can identify an arbitrary claim as true or as false, if one has no way of knowing whether or not it corresponds to reality. It is only to say that as a meaningful statement, it is either true or false -– either does or does not correspond to reality. Nor is it to say that the claim deserves serious consideration in the absence of any supporting evidence. Clearly, it does not.

Peikoff is certainly correct when he says that a claim is identified as true only because (in corresponding to reality) it is capable of being “integrated without contradiction into a total context,” for reality is a non-contradictory whole. But that does not mean that the claim must already have been integrated in order to be true. Obviously, if one has not integrated it –- if the claim contradicts other propositions that one accepts as true -– then one cannot know that the claim is true, because knowledge is a non-contradictory whole. But just as a fact of reality doesn’t depend on anyone’s knowledge of its existence, neither does the correspondence of a proposition to a fact of reality depend on anyone’s knowledge of its correspondence. To claim otherwise is to endorse a primacy-of-consciousness metaphysics.

Peikoff is also correct that insofar as an arbitrary claim has no relation, either positive or negative, to (actual) evidence or context, neither the term “true” nor the term “false” can be applied to it, because in the absence of sufficient evidence, pro or con, one cannot know whether the claim is true or false. But that’s different from saying that an arbitrary claim has no relation, positive or negative, to reality. It’s different from saying that an arbitrary claim cannot be true or false. Clearly, it can.

(To be continued…)
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