Friday, September 10, 2010

Platonic or sophistic?

Reading recently Plato's disparagement of the sophists, including the debate of Absolute Truth versus relative truth, it reminded me of the contemporary remnants of a similar polarizing discussion in social science, or the positivist versus the naturalistic perspectives. To begin with, I think a middle ground is possible, in which relative truths help us, through dialectic, reach toward greater truths that are closer to the ideal of Truth. I also think positivist and naturalistic approaches work best in tandem, rather than in opposition. But as a pragmatist, I think Absolute Truth is unattainable, and the naturalistic / sophist approach fits much better with navigating reality, particularly when studying the complexities of communication -- mixing humans, messages, channels and context. The sophists clearly needed more training on ethics (or more concern with it), but, the core of their beliefs, that each position in an argument can be presented persuasively, could be used as part of the dialectical process rather than considered outside of it. If we are dealing with humans, I think, truth has to be thought of as relative and negotiated, just because virtually everything we do is mediated or filtered through symbols or compressed and manipulated in some way. The only way to truly recount something in history is through a time machine, and even people who witness the same scene at the same time from very similar perspectives will interpret what happened differently. Multiply that scenario by 7 billion people, and the search for Truth almost seems laughable (sorry, Plato!). But, like every Utopian dream, or ideal, that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying to reach for it. Maybe the Truth just hasn't been revealed to us (or maybe it's just me). And it all will be clear one day, when we have evolved our knowledge base broadly enough to really understand things. Until then, I think being highly aware of the screen of symbols and the use of rhetoric, in all of its forms, different perspectives, etc., bring us closer to an understanding of Truth, in that we live a socially negotiated and mediated existence, and that virtually every stimulus that reaches us is then interpreted through the paradigm we have built throughout our lives.


Cris Broyles said...


I really enjoyed your posting---especially how you rebutted the “absolute truth” idea. Indeed, one of the first things I learned in my graduate coursework was the idea of “lens” and of “baggage”----particularly in my studies of ethnography. In looking at the same idea from multiple perspectives, you can gain understanding---but you’ll never reach absolute truth because everything is governed by perception, which varies from person to person. Of course, Hawking would disagree and say there is one absolute mathematical equation that governs the universe----and, moreover, that that equation is absolute truth! However, I think “knowledge” can come from a recognition of one’s own position within the discourse---a recognition of “how” one is viewing the topic (from what lens) and what biases/perceptions he (or she) bring with him (or her) as he (or she) views that topic through that lens (the baggage). In recognizing those, it is possible to begin to filter out some things and perhaps reach something that is more “pure”---but, yes, the kind of truth Plato sought, I don’t think can be attained by man.


Ben said...

Interesting ideas about absolute truth. Emily made a good point on a response to my blog recently, where she said in essence "Were the sophists that bad, or were they maligned by people for making money?" After all, we both teach to earn bread to eat bread, and so make a case that we deserve such a position. Is that the sort of knowledge you talk about here? That, as instructors we recognize our position within the discourse and so must be self-reflective about what/how/who/when/where/why we are teaching to our students?

Deb said...

You are definitely not alone in your conclusions concerning Absolute Truth. I agree with your assessment that truth is both "relative and negotiated." Kenneth Burke discusses the idea of a terministic screen through which we filter language and ideas based on our occupations or comfort zones, choosing certain aspects of reality (or maybe truth) over others. And I think these choices can be either purposeful actions or subconscious reactions. Our backgrounds and experience can't help but create the "lens" (as Cris points out) through which we view the world or the screen through which we filter messages and knowledge we allow "in." As you also said, Brett, I don't think that it hurts to strive for Absolute Truth, but even if it exists, I'm not so sure we would all recognize it.