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The traditional philosophical problem is: What is the nature of knowledge/truth? This question assumes (a) there is an essence of truth and knowledge, and the correct answer is one, which grasps this essence, and (b) the different theories of knowledge/ truth are rival answers, only one of which could possibly be the right answer. Thus, for example, if the question concerns the origin of knowledge, then either empiricism or rationalism or intuitionism is the true answer; if the question concerns the nature of knowledge, then the true theory of knowledge is one which captures the distinction between knowledge and belief or knowledge and opinion, since knowledge implies awareness of the grounds of belief over and above true belief. Likewise, truth is either correspondence of statement with fact, or truth is mutual coherence of a system of beliefs, or truth is utility, etcetera.

The classical theories of knowledge and truth are all rooted in the more or less unconscious assumption that all meaningful words, as descriptive ‘Fido-Fido’ names refer to some object or entity. These objects may be physical or they may be mental or spiritual, but they must be entities, all the same, having some features, which the philosopher attempts to discern by reflection or non-experimental enquiry. While chairs, trees, animals, matter, energy, motion, and space are physical; goodness, truth, love, and justice are non-naturalistic entities. According to this line of thinking, philosophical theories are cognitive truth claims about the ultimate nature of entities or of Reality as a whole. In other words, philosophy is a super-science of Noumenal objects or entities as distinct from science, which deals merely with their spatiotemporal appearances.

Logical Positivism went to the other extreme that philosophical theories were either nonsense or at the most poetic expressions of some sort, which were neither true nor false. It seems to me there was a germ of truth in this insight, which was, however, a distorted vision of the nature and function of philosophical theories. It is true that philosophical theories are knowledge claims without being true or false in the sense in which scientific or logico-mathematical knowledge claims are true or false. But the perfunctory dichotomy of discourse into cognitive and emotive and the Positivists’ hasty dumping of poetry, metaphysics, religion and morality under the shapeless umbrella of emotive discourse, without going into the concrete structural and functional differences between different families of emotive discourse (viz. the poetic, the ethical, the aesthetic, the religious, the metaphysical) led to the superficial rejection of classical metaphysical and epistemological theories.

It was John Wisdom who later on pointed out that philosophical theories are a paradigmatic fixation under the over-powering grip of selected instances or uses of a concept. If so, there cannot be any one true theory of knowledge, or of truth or of Reality, but only an awareness of the reasons or factors which incline one in favor of this Paradigm or that. This meta-theory of philosophy implies that every philosophical theory is illuminating and simultaneously misleading. A theory is illuminating because it draws our attention to certain features of our experience; it is misleading because it makes us ignore some other features of our experience under the influence of the selected Paradigm. The Paradigm is chosen because of some aspect or feature of our experience, which feature then serves as the norm for identifying, describing, classifying, or grading Reality as the case maybe. Now a choice of the norm can be happy, or unhappy, reflective or impulsive, balanced or lop-sided, but never true or false. A choice could be true or false only in the case of applying the norm for identifying objects on the basis of agreed criteria. But when the choice concerns the criteria themselves, the choice cannot be said to be true or false, but only wise or unwise, and happy or unhappy, etcetera.

If the above analysis be correct and if philosophical theories flow from paradigmatic fixations upon a particular feature or set of features of Reality, as pointed out by Wisdom, philosophical theories never will be settled or clinched, just as ethical, aesthetic or religious truth claims can never be clinched. If we crave for agreement among all observers or thinkers, we have to give up the game of philosophy as distinct from science. But this agreement would amount to the silence of the grave. Wisdom is right when he says that philosophical confusion as well as penetration is the destiny of the metaphysician. In a way resembling the poet’s, the metaphysician does not describe Reality, but enables us to see it in the light of a favored Paradigm, which reveals and yet conceals the complexity of Reality and also the flexibility and range of our language. In the idiom of Wittgenstein, philosophical theories are alternative language games and hence optional rather than compellingly true or false theories or knowledge claims.

In the light of the above meta-theoretical preamble let us now examine the classical theories of knowledge, rationalism and empiricism, and also the contemporary theory of emotivism. We shall then proceed to examine the classical theories of truth, correspondence and coherence, and contemporary theory of redundancy.

Rationalism is a theory of the origin of knowledge and also of the nature of knowledge. In the first sense rationalism states that all knowledge has its origin in reason, or that reason is the source of all knowledge as distinguished from mere sensation or opinion. Let us see what features of Reality (in this case of knowledge) incline us to this view, and thus function as the Paradigm of knowledge. Obviously, the Paradigm of knowledge (in this case) is our cognition of logico-mathematical truths. Even though such truths are initially learnt in the context of perceptual experience, the fact is that these truths, as formal deductive explications of initial postulates or definitions, are independent of perceptual experience. In other words, it is reason and not perception, which is needed for grasping the relations between ideas.

A different Paradigm of knowledge, which may be said to incline us to the rationalistic position, is ethical/aesthetic beliefs, which require insight or intuition apart from sense perception. In the absence of moral insight a cold-blooded murder is a mere physical event; in the absence of aesthetic intuition a divinely beautiful sunset is just an optical illusion. Now, is it not very tempting to hold that not only the grasping of logical connections or relations, but also the intuiting of ethical and aesthetic qualities is the function of reason, which has different dimensions?

Let us now refer to a feature of our knowledge, which gives further support to the rationalistic theory of the origin of knowledge. This feature is the role of reasoning in sorting out veridical from non-veridical perceptions, that is, illusions, and also the role of reason in interpreting the data provided by sense organs and in distinguishing perceptual appearance from objective reality. This point, however, brings us to rationalism as a theory of the nature of knowledge. Prima facie, sense experience does not involve the use of reason, at least in the case of veridical perception, which appears to give us knowledge without any reasoning or conceptual interpretation. But is it not the case that even simple veridical perceptual judgments like, ‘This is a book’, or ‘I see a brown patch over there’, are not reducible to bare sensation but involve concepts and, thus, the use of reason? If so, it becomes true to say: No reason, no knowledge.

Having seen why we are inclined to accept the rationalistic theory of knowledge, let us see how, at the same time, it misleads us, on account of which we become inclined to reject it and, thus, land ourselves into perplexity. Beliefs about matters of fact are, in one sense, qualitatively different from logico-mathematical beliefs, viz., that the truth of the former is contingent and not necessary. A true factual belief describes an actual state of affairs, which, however, could have been different without involving any contradiction. A true logico-mathematical belief, on the other hand, asserts a necessary connection between ideas, and this connection could not have been different without involving an inherent contradiction. When this is the case, beliefs about matters of fact fall in a different class from logico-mathematical beliefs. Factual beliefs, if true, are true because they correspond or agree with (in some sense or other) with an actual state of affairs, and not merely because they are just free from any internal contradiction. Again, the question whether a belief that is free from internal contradiction (in other words, logically possible) is factually true, can only be known through experiencing the actual state of affairs and not through exploring the realm of possibility alone. Whether or not, round squares exist can be known by reflection alone, but not whether tigers run faster than lions. It is precisely this feature or fact, which is ignored when we say with the rationalist that all knowledge requires the use of reason or comes from reason. Likewise, it is precisely this feature or fact, which grips the imagination of the empiricist and inclines him to say that all knowledge comes from experience, including logico-mathematical truths, which originate in experience, even though not constituted by it.

Let us now turn to the contemporary controversy whether ethical/religious discourse is cognitive or emotive, or are the terms ‘true’ and ‘false’ applicable to ethical/religious beliefs. As in the case of the classical theories of knowledge, the theory of emotivism is both illuminating and misleading. There is thus no need to affirm either emotivism or cognitivism to the exclusion of the other. Rather we must show how and what each reveals and also conceals.

In ordinary language we refer to ethical knowledge or ethical truths. We say for instance; ‘I know rape is immoral’, ‘I believe free love is permissible’, ‘I hold mercy killing is moral in such and such cases’. Now such judgments are qualitatively different from judgments of fact and judgments of reason or implication, since ethical beliefs can be proved neither inductively nor deductively. On the other hand, ethical/religious judgments are also qualitatively different from judgments of taste like, ‘I prefer my coffee cold’, or judgments of attitudinal preference like, ‘I don’t like poking my nose in others affairs’, or ‘I prefer the security of government service to the glamour of politics’. Nevertheless, judgments of taste, judgments of attitudinal preference and ethical judgments all resemble each other in that they all express the response of the person to an actual or imagined situation, rather than describe the elements and structure of a situation. But while judgments of taste claim to be the subject’s response without any claim to universal validity and without evoking feelings of disapproval or indignation at a contrary taste, and without evoking the urge to propagate and establish one’s own taste, attitudinal and ethical judgments have an obligatory air about them in varying degrees. Even aesthetic judgments are not so permissive as judgments of taste. We may say there are degrees of permissiveness or of obligation, with judgments of taste at one end of the scale and judgments of morality at the other, with other types of judgments lying at different points on the scale. Yet, all such judgments, which may be called ‘judgments of response to a situation’ rather than ‘judgments of description of a situation’ have the common features of human choice, variability and non-coercive validity.

Now if we antecedently accept that the definite absence of the above features is the sine qua non of a knowledge claim, it will analytically follow that ethical/religious knowledge claims are not ‘really’ knowledge claims, but only appear to be so due to our popular beliefs, language habits, confused thinking, etcetera. But the question arises: why should we give the above restricted sense to ‘knowledge’, when ordinary language uses ‘knowledge’ to cover our firm ethical convictions, say ‘murder is immoral’, or ‘love is good’ and ‘jealousy bad’, etcetera?

No compelling reasons in favor of this restricted use of ‘knowledge can be given, though it is a valid reason (as far as it goes) that ethical/religious beliefs can never be proved, but are condemned to remain controversial by the very nature of the case. This is a pure epistemological reason and is valid without being conclusive. We could also give the utilitarian reason that, denying the status of knowledge to ethical/religious beliefs helps to curb dogmatism and promotes the agreement to differ. On the other hand, there are equally valid epistemological as well as utilitarian reasons against the restricted use of knowledge. The epistemological reason is that the clarity and certainty of, at least, some basic ethical convictions are as compelling as those of logico-mathematical truths, even granting that the certainty of ethical judgments is existential and not logical. The point to note is that in preferring love to hatred, or in preferring gratitude to one’s benefactor to ingratitude, one is not free in the sense of choosing, say, one color rather than the other, but that one chooses under an existential, if not logical, necessity. The utilitarian reason against excluding ethical/religious beliefs from the connotative or denotative umbrella of knowledge is that such exclusion demotes the status and significance of ethical/religious beliefs or convictions, as compared with science and mathematics, which become our paradigmatic fixations. It, therefore, seems to me that no compelling or conclusive reasons can be advanced for or against the emotivist theory of ethical/religious judgments.

It is much more fruitful to analyze the different types of models of certainty and of knowledge, according to the ordinary use of language, and also to analyze the sort of verification, generally deemed to be adequate for that model of certainty and of knowledge. This neutral analysis of our actual use of the words ‘knowledge’ and ‘certainty’ will reveal the different models of verifiability in actual practice, and also show which models are applicable in principle to the different types of ‘knowledge’, as the word is actually used in our living language. We will find that scientific knowledge is verified in a different way from logico-mathematical knowledge, or, in other words, the Paradigm of verifiability in the two cases is different, and that scientific knowledge is incapable of deductive or logical proof. If so, why should we not accept yet another Paradigm or model of verifiability for ethical/ religious knowledge claims?

A particular model of verifiability must first be applicable, in principle, to a putative knowledge claim before we can properly declare that the knowledge claim falls short of the Paradigm of knowledge. Only if the demand for a particular mode of verification is applicable, in principle (or makes sense in a particular context of human experience), but the verification is actually lacking, could we say that there is an inadequacy or lack in the evidence necessary to convert a belief into knowledge. If, however, we antecedently fix upon a particular Paradigm of verifiability as the essence of verification without which no belief can claim to be knowledge, and we then withhold the status of knowledge from all those beliefs or knowledge claims to which the Paradigm is avowedly not applicable, we, in effect, become captive to a particular Paradigm of knowledge or of verification. We forget that, though the choice of a Paradigm has a logic, this logic is merely persuasive, and not coercive. If we realize this, we will admit that there can be no ‘the’ correct answer to the questions: (a) are ethical/religious beliefs knowledge claims? And (b) is ethical/religious discourse cognitive or emotive?

Another reason why neither emotivism nor cognitivism can be accepted without qualifications is that there is a basic difference between ethical judgments concerning instrumental and intrinsic values. All ethical judgments which state that such and such acts, motives, situations are good or right in the instrumental sense implicitly postulate or imply an intrinsic value and then go onto claim that that intrinsic value is promoted by such and such acts or situations. Now the latter part of this complex ethical judgment is a factual truth claim. In other words, there is a putative factual base supporting the validity or truth of the total ethical judgment. Now the emotive theory conceals or ignores this factually verifiable base in the case of instrumental values; likewise, cognitivism conceals or ignores the element of the subject’s response or valuation in the context of intrinsic values. Valuation, as a response to an actual or possible situation, rather than the description of an actual or possible situation, can never be true or false in the sense of correspondence or non-correspondence with an external situation or an objective truth. Valuation could be said to be true or false in this objective sense (as already pointed out in the preamble) only in the context of either identifying or grading objects, acts or situations in accordance with previously accepted or given criteria. But valuation in the context of freely choosing the criteria of value themselves cannot be true or false, but only wise or unwise, happy or unhappy, authentic or inauthentic, reflective or impulsive, and balanced or lop-sided, etcetera.

Let us now deal with the classical theories of truth in the manner we have adopted for the theories of knowledge. Each theory of truth fits very well a particular range or type of data, but it breaks down if it is extended beyond that range. For example, the correspondence theory of truth fits factual truth claims, but not logico-mathematical, while the coherence theory is in just the reverse position. The same remarks apply to the controversy between Austin and Strawson concerning the redundancy view of ‘truth’, or the expression, is true. It seems to me, there is no single context or use, which could claim to be ‘the’ right or proper meaning or use of the expression is true. Let us see this in some detail.

Consider the sentence, ‘It is true that London is the capital of UK’. Here the expression ‘It is true’ is used in a factual context. But in the sentence, ‘It is true that 10 is not divisible by 3’, we use the expression ‘is true’ in the conceptual context without implying any actual states of affairs. In this case, how can it be said that the truth of the statement implies correspondence between the statement and facts, or that the statement is true because it corresponds with facts, when the statement merely asserts a necessary relation between ideas. We may say the statement corresponds with laws of logic or mathematics. But then, what is the difference between correspondence with the laws of logic and coherence with other true statements? Does not the difference between the two theories of truth turn out to be merely verbal, at least, in the case of logico-mathematical statements? It seems to me that in the context of logico-mathematical discourse the criterion of correspondence merges into that of coherence, while in the context of factual discourse, the criterion of coherence inevitably merges into that of correspondence with facts. Consequently, we can never claim that one theory or the other grasps the essence of truth more than the other. As long as ‘truth is used in both factual and logical contexts, no particular Paradigm of use can be accepted as universally applicable.

Let us examine a more complex type of factual statement, say, ‘The average Chinese male is shorter than the average American female’. Now we can never point out the average Chinese or American. However, the statement is true, only if it corresponds with facts, and false if it fails to do so. But the sense in which the statement could possibly correspond with facts is quite different from the direct correspondence of the statement, say; ‘The Qutab Minar is X feet high’, with the actual fact. Average heights, speeds and incomes, etcetera, do not exist in the direct sense in which the Qutab Minar exists. Hence although statements containing expressions like ‘average height’, ‘the intelligentsia, ‘the modern mind, ‘electron, ‘honesty’, ‘democracy’, and ‘the unconscious’, etcetera, (if and when true) do correspond with facts, this correspondence is no longer a simple one-to-one relation, but a complex relationship which includes both correspondence with facts and coherence with other true statements.

Let us now refer just in passing to William James pragmatic theory of truth. This theory confuses the question of the nature of truth with the question of the test of truth. It also equates the concept of truth with the entirely different concept of utility. James also goes wrong in holding that not only the truths of religion and morality but also the abstract explanatory theories and concepts of science have no justification apart from their utility, Peirce’s conception of operational meaning and verification is very illuminating, but it fails to clarify and illumine the nature and function of ethical/religious discourse. Thus, all the classical or traditional Western theories of truth break down in some respect or the other.

Let us now examine the controversy between Austin and Strawson concerning the ‘redundancy view’ of the expression ‘is true’. Strawson says that the statement; ‘It is true that London is the capital of UK’, asserts nothing over and above the statement, ‘London is the capital of UK’. From this he infers that the expression ‘it is true’ does not describe any attribute, quality or relation of a sentence or statement, whether of correspondence or of coherence. Strawson says that the expression ‘it is true’ is grammatically similar to the expression, say, ‘it is blue’ or ‘it is soft. Now since the above expressions do attribute a specific quality or attribute to the noun corresponding to the pronoun ‘it’, the expression ‘it is true’ also seems to attribute the quality of truth to the corresponding substantive statement. But the expression ‘is true’ merely expresses one’s agreement with the statement in question, rather than attribute any mysterious attribute to it. Similarly, the expression ‘is false’ does not attribute the quality of falsity to a statement, but expresses one’s disagreement. This approach appears to prevent or dissolve the raising of the classical problem of the nature of truth. If in attributing truth or falsity to a belief I merely assert or deny the belief, the words ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’ become redundant. We could ‘describe’, ‘explain’, ‘assert’, ‘deny’, ‘prove’, ‘disprove’, ‘agree’, and ‘disagree’ exactly as we do now without using the words ‘truth’ or ‘true’.

This advantage of the redundancy theory is, however, illusory, since it totally fails to prevent or dissolve the problem of what makes a true statement true, or under what conditions do we say that a statement is true or false. But we certainly need a theory of truth in the sense that we must have definite criteria of agreement or disagreement with assertions made by others and also have definite rules for making assertions ourselves. It seems to me that in the case of factual statements it is precisely the correspondence theory, which gives, the best-generalized answer to the question as to what makes a true statement true, or any statement either true or false. Both when we say that; ‘London is the capital of UK’, and when we say that; ‘It is true that London is the capital of UK’, we imply (in the first case implicitly and in the second explicitly) that the sentence or statement is not merely a supposal or a logical relation between ideas, independent of their factual existence, but also that it asserts an actual situation or states of affairs. We further imply that the sentence or statement is true because, in some sense or other (which it may be hard to specify or pinpoint), the statement corresponds or agrees with the actual situation. In the case of logico-mathematical statements the coherence theory gives the best-generalized answer. But both break down when they claim exclusive validity or claim to define the essence of truth, or (in the contemporary idiom) claim to provide us with a Paradigm applicable in all contexts of knowledge and truth. Like the words ‘good’, ‘right’, ‘just’, the word ‘true’ does not stand for an univocal property or essence, but is used in different contexts for different purposes. No single use can claim to be ‘the true use’ or meaning of ‘truth’ or ‘true’, or in other words, no single theory of truth can claim to describe the essence of truth.

The above irenic linguistic approach to the problem of truth has been followed by John Wisdom and is very fruitful, indeed. But it may be extended to the existentialist approach of thinkers like Kierkegaard and Jasper’s. The concepts of correspondence, coherence, utility are important for understanding the different uses of the word ‘true. But equally important is the concept of authenticity, which is the key concept in the spheres of morality and religion. In these spheres the criterion of truth can be neither correspondence, nor coherence, nor utility, but authenticity or authentic subjectivity, as distinguished from verifiable objectivity. Kierkegaard or Jasper’s concept of authentic subjectivity avowedly lacks logical or factual proof and implies commitment without coercive evidence. It also implies the possibility of plural objects or foci of commitment. But there is no harm in holding that in those areas of morality and religion where no factual truth claims are involved, truth means authentic subjectivity. Authenticity is inseparable from sincerity or truthfulness, but it is not reducible, without remainder, to sincerity. A person cannot be authentic without being sincere or truthful, but he can be sincere without being authentic. Authenticity is the highest form of sincerity as well as the deepest level of knowledge, since it implies self-knowledge, which, in turn, implies the plumbing of the deeps of the human self. The exploring of the deeps of the unknown self-comprising, layer upon layer, half-formed mute whisperings and intimations from mans authentic depths is a perilous task, indeed. Heroic is the person who can claim to have reached the shores of authenticity. But even he who does arrive is, forthwith, lost again in the dark depths of his individual existence, since authenticity can never be possessed as a trophy, but must be won afresh every moment of our existence. Authenticity is like the sky, which eludes us the moment we reach it. Truth, in the sense of authentic subjectivity, is the most precarious and slippery foothold for the seeker. But if he despairs of the venture and abandons the quest of this facet of truth, because it cannot be verified or established in the scientific sense, he fails to cultivate the spiritual dimension of life to the optimum degree. His self does not grow in the many splendored fullness of its potential being.

It seems to me there is no harm if the search for truth (in the sense of authentic subjectivity) leads to unverifiable (in the scientific and logical sense) plural truths, provided two conditions be satisfied, first, the seekers agree to differ, and secondly, they are moved by the will to become authentic beings rather than the will to believe.


Knowledge and Truth
BY Jamal Khwaja

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Jamal Khwaja studied Philosophy in India & Europe. He was elected to the Indian Parliament in 1957. He retired as Professor and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Aligarh Muslim University. He is the author of seven major books. 

Khwaja’s work seeks to answer three inter-related questions: Firstly, What does it mean to be an authentic Muslim? Secondly, How should a believer understand and interpret the Holy Quran in the 21st century?  And finally, What is the role of Islam in a pluralistic society? 

Khwaja believes in judiciously creative modernization rooted in the Quran and firmly opposes shallow, unprincipled imitation of the West. His mission is to stimulate serious rethinking and informed dialog between tradition and modernity in Islam. 

Khwaja’s work is the definitive contemporary discussion regarding the collision of Islam and Modernity. Readers of his work will be in turn, informed, inspired, and intellectually liberated.