a journal of analysis and comment
advancing public understanding of religion and education
Vol. 35 No. 2
Talking with Students about Truth:
Using Heidegger to Loosen the Grip of Literal Absolutes
Francis Dominic Degnin
When teaching students about the nature and limits of truth, I am reminded of Adrian Peperzak’s remark that ‘relativism is really only a serious proposal for undergraduate philosophy majors.’1 Peperzak reminds us that the larger problem, particularly in a society charged by religious debates over science and morals, is not relativism. Relativism, if taken to mean a complete absence of moral grounds, is simply not a viable view of moral life. No one actually lives is if this were true. Absolutism, on the other hand, involves the assumption of an absolute moral standard or set of rules embedded in the very nature of reality–be that in the mind of God, the nature of the universe, or some other form. Both have strengths and weaknesses. For example, one might think that relativism involves a greater openness to pluralism. But it can also degenerate into either chaos or an ethic based on might. Absolutism has the advantage of providing a firm moral compass. But absolute systems tend to oppress those who disagree with one’s version of that moral compass. They even sometimes justify such violence to their victims as “for their own good.”
It is interesting that both of these extremes share a common risk–that is, reduction to an ethics of power. For relativism, this is because there are no ethical guides. For absolutism, it’s because of the perception that ethical guides must be enforced. But though each approach has its strengths and risks, if these are our only choices, the debate is pretty much a slam dunk. Most of us would rather live with some ethical rules than with none at all. On the other hand, do these two alternatives really exhaust the possibilities? Are these our only choices? Do these choices adequately describe our human experience?
These questions guide this exploration of the nature of truth. I’m less interested in abstract definitions than in the question of how we live and experience truth(s) in our lives. In fact, I don’t propose a single definition of truth. If one moves away from an absolute notion of truth, then truth can best be defined as a process. My concern is to see how different notions of truth function on different levels of experience, how truth is better understood as an activity, and how this activity has both a ground and a goal.
To accomplish this task, I begin with an abbreviated Heideggerian etymology of the word truth. As part of the etymology, I introduce the hermeneutic circle and a phenomenological definition of world as the sum of one’s possibilities for action, thought, and relationship beyond the immediate physical body.2 In other words, one builds one’s world as an interpretation of one’s possibilities for action. This allows us to illustrate how truth is found in the relationship between human need and external reality, which together form the first two grounds for truth. This also opens to door to arguing that this is a directed activity–following Aristotle, I argue that we construct our world by interpreting experience in ways which satisfy our needs. I complete the class using ideas from Ricoeur and Levinas to suggest a specifically ethical source (or ground) for truth as founded in a pre-rational ethical experience.3 Technically, this ground would be rooted in the previous two, but it plays such a crucial role in human ethics and development as to deserve special notice. By the end, I suggest that truth is better used as a verb, so that truth names a process by which I engage, move within, create, and interact within my world and worlds of others. Additionally, the measure of the truth of a belief is its success in integrating the whole of experience in ways which support human flourishing.4
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