The Truth of False Statements

Making (Up) the Truth with Anselm, part 7

For Anselm, then, the truth of a statement lies not, in the first instance, in what the statement says, that is, in the extra-linguistic state of affairs signified by the statement, but in the statement’s faithfully carrying out the intra-mental purpose for which the statement was made, even though the purpose for which a statement is made is that it should indeed signify that what-is is or that what-is-not is not, such that a statement is true when it does precisely this. That having been said, in one of the most interesting and, as I shall argue, suggestive turns in his discussion of truth, Anselm also recognizes a respect in which, on account of their very capacity to signify what is factually true, statements also continue to signify what they were made to signify, and hence have a kind of truth, even when they signify what is in fact not or no longer the case. The Teacher gives the example of the statement “It is day”: although originally made for the purpose of signifying that it is day when it is in fact day, the statement nevertheless retains its grammatical form, meaning, and hence signification, and so in that sense does what it was made to do, what it ought to do, and so has truth, even when it is uttered at night.[1] The way the Teacher puts this is by saying that, coincident with their “having been made” (facta est) to signify that what-is is and what-is-not is not, our statements have also “received the capability of signifying” (accepit significare) that what-is is not and that what-is-not is. A necessary and intrinsic accident, in other words, of a statement’s ability to signify that what-is is and what-is-not is not is its simultaneous, even if not explicitly intended, ability also to signify that what-is-not is and that what-is is not. Or as Sweeney has put it in expressly modal terms, this ability to signify what is false, paradoxically, is a “condition of the possibility” of it also signifying what is true, inasmuch as “language cannot signify what is actually the case without being able to signify what is not the case.”[2]

[1] Scholars of Anselm’s On Truth have had other ways of describing this distinction between, as I have put it, the truth of a statement’s intelligible, grammatical form on the one hand and its actual correspondence with reality on the other. Torrance, for example, describes the same distinction in terms of a distinction between a statement “fulfilling its syntactical function as a consistent and coherent set of words” and its “fulfilling a semantic function in referring to a state of affairs beyond itself.” Torrance, “The Ethical Implications of Anslem’s De Veritate,” 310. And Noone describes it even more differently though no less perceptively in terms of a distinction of “(1) truth that is concomitant with the statement’s being at all and seems intrinsic to it; and (2) truth that expresses the well-being and proper functioning of the statement.” Noone, “Truth, Creation, and Intelligibility in Anselm, Grosseteste, and Bonaventure,” 109.

[2] Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury, 183-4, emphasis original. As she puts it a little later, “the ability to signify undergirds the ability to signify that what is is, and signifying that what is is is the purpose of language.” Ibid., 185.


The Pacifist of Wootton Major

From J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story, Smith of Wootton Major:

“he soon became wise and understood that the marvels of Faery cannot be approached without danger, and that many of the Evils cannot be challenged without weapons of power too great for any mortal to wield. He remained a learner and explorer, not a warrior; and though in time he could have forged weapons that in his own world would have had power enough to become the matter of great tales and be worth a king’s ransom, he knew that in Faery they would have been of small account. So among all the things that he made it is not remembered that he ever forged a sword or a spear or an arrow-head.”

Anselm’s “Correctness” Theory of Truth

Making (Up) the Truth with Anselm, part 6

What our statements have been made to do, at least in general, according to Anselm, is to affirm precisely that what-is is and that what-is-not is not. At this point in the dialogue the Teacher introduces a crucially important sequence of inferences climaxing in his definition of truth, beginning with his observation that insofar as stating that what-is is or what-is-not is not is what an affirmation has been “made” (facta est) to do, then this is what it “ought to do” (Hoc ergo debet). The purpose or intention with which a thing, including a statement, has been brought into being creates the expectation and hence moral and metaphysical obligation for what that thing ought to be and to do.[1] Thus, when a statement does what it ought, the Teacher continues, then it “signifies rightly” (recte significat) and its “signification is correct” (recta est significatio).[2] It is when a statement signifies rightly and correctly, finally, that “its signification is true” (vera est significatio), meaning that “an affirmation’s truth is simply its rightness, or correctness” (Ergo non est illi aliud veritas quam rectitudo), and the truth of anything in general just is that thing’s correctness (veritatem esse rectitudinem) with regard to the purpose for which it was made. The possibility of a thing being true or having truth, in sum, lies in that thing (a) having been made, (b) having been made for a purpose, and (c) in its fulfilling that purpose well, that is, with correctness or rectitude.

[1] In the words of T.F. Torrance, “That a thing is what it is and not another thing demands that we signify it in accordance with what it is. We owe it to the nature of a thing to do that. We signify it truly, therefore, when we fulfil a debitum toward the thing signified.” Torrance, “The Ethical Implications of Anslem’s De Veritate,” 309.

[2] As Campbell has aptly put it, “It emerges from all this that for Anselm truth, that is, correctness, is something which is done.” Campbell, “Anselm’s Background Metaphysics,” 325, emphasis original.

Designing the truth

Making (Up) the Truth With Anselm, part 5

As to what it is that our statements are actually meant to do and to be, the Teacher sets out to explain by asking the Student a question cutting to the very heart of Anselm’s theory of truth and, more than that, to his whole theology of possibility more generally: “What,” he inquires, “is an affirmation designed to do?” (Ad quid facta est affirmatio?) To understand what it means for a statement to be true, the Teacher takes for granted, we need to understand what a statement was made to do, for what is possible for a thing to be depends on what it was actually made to be.[1] As was noted above, for Anselm we only know what it means for God to be the Supreme Truth—that is, we only know the possibility of our speaking of God in terms of his truth—by first looking at those things around us which God himself has made and so made to be true. We can know the unmade Truth, in brief, by investigating its analogues in each and every made truth. Likewise, as we saw in the Monologion, the “truth” of God’s own creation was found to lie, not in its correspondence to some putatively eternal “divine ideas”—God’s own, alleged pre-creation “state of affairs,” as it were—but in those things God in his divine locutio innovatively intended and made his creation to be. Mirroring this relation between God’s truth and God’s own making is the Teacher’s assumption here that if we would understand the truth of our human, propositional locutions, we must look, once again, not in the first place to those states of affairs which are signified by our statements (but otherwise existing prior to and independently of them), but instead to the purpose for which our statements have been created in the first place.

[1] It is interesting to compare here Anselm’s view of the truth of a thing as having to do with the purpose for which it was made with his own, peculiar experience as an author and his somewhat innovative views on the relationship of the meaning of a text with its authorial intent. Commenting, for example, on Anselm’s preface to his trilogy of dialogues, Eileen Sweeney writes: “Clearly he thinks of them as books units complete in themselves and tied to him as their author whose intentions are an intrinsic part of their meaning. This is an interesting historical development in the notions of authorship and publication… These texts are for them [the monastic community at Bec] and for Anselm a natural outgrowth of conversations undertaken together by those sharing the same goals and form of life, but as Anselm’s works circulate outside of community and control, he needs to specify and explain their intention and proper use.” Sweeney, Anselm of Canterbury, 175-6.

Anselm’s (non-)correspondence theory of truth

Making (Up) the Truth With Anselm, part 4

The specific, created reality with which he begins, sensibly enough, is that form or meaning of truth which we attribute to statements or propositions in particular, “since quite frequently we call a statement true or false” (quoniam hanc [enuntiationem] saepius dicimus veram vel falsam—ch. 2). The Student, following Aristotle’s well-known dictum, declares that a statement is said to be true whenever it asserts that what-is is or that what-is-not is not. A statement is true, in other words, when it accurately describes and so corresponds, as it were, to the way things really are in reality. Yet the Student also perceptively recognizes that the “thing stated”—the res enuntiata, or the existing state of affairs either affirmatively or negatively signified by the true statement—although this may be an integral cause of the statement’s being true, it nevertheless cannot itself be the truth of the statement.[1] The truth of a statement, in short, is not the reality that the statement truly describes or signifies. When we speak of the truth of a statement, rather, what we are indicating is some property or feature belonging to the statement itself, to the statement as such, and therefore not, at least in the first instance, to the existing state of affairs signified by the statement. The truth of a statement, in other words, does not lie in the state of affairs as they exist prior to or independent of the statement itself (as important as that may be), but as the Teacher will develop momentarily, lies instead in the kind of thing that a statement is actually uttered to do and to be.

[1] As Campbell observes, the Student’s “use of ‘cause’, though not the argument in support of it which invokes the Platonic-sounding notion of ‘participating in truth’, is found in Boethius’ commentary on Aristotle’s Categories.” Campbell, “Anselm’s Background Metaphysics,” 319.

Anselm’s empirical method

Making (Up) the Truth With Anselm, part 3

With the theological question of truth having been broached from the starting points of both faith and reason, Anselm sets about answering it by following much the same experiential and practical method he had explicitly pursued in the Monologion and which I have argued he similarly takes for granted in the Proslogion, namely to “inquire as to what truth is by examining the various things in which we say there is truth” (quaeramus per rerum diversitates in quibus veritatem dicimus esse, quid sit veritas).[1] God as the Supreme Truth may be the cause of the truth of all other things, but what we mean by truth, including the Supreme Truth, is and must be taken from and informed by those truths which have been not only made by God but also actually experienced by us. As the Teacher describes it to the Student later in the dialogue, the method is that of beginning with those notions of truth which are more familiar “in order to lead you from the more familiar to the less familiar” (ut te a notioribus ad ignotiora perducerem—ch. 9). Similar to his two previous works, accordingly, Anselm initiates his inquiry, not with a theoretical account of the possibility or meaning of truth determined or defined prior to all experienced actuality, but with our pre-theoretical, lived encounters with those things which our language has already, even if imprecisely, identified as true.

[1] Marlyn McCord Adams describes Anselm’s method as one of “proceed[ing] pedagogically, from ‘the better known to the more unknown,’ from ‘the truth of signification about which everyone speaks’ to ‘truth in the essence of things,’ which ‘few consider.’ At the same time, Anselm moves from what is commonly said—by reviewing ‘the diversity of things in which we say truth exists’—to the deeper underlying philosophical truth of the matter not betrayed by surface usage.” Adams, “Saint Anselm’s Theory of Truth,” 359, emphasis original. In a similar vein, Noone refers to Anselm’s method as an “inductive process,” beginning with the truth of creation, and particularly the truth of signification, and culminating in the Highest Truth of God. Noone, “Truth, Creation, and Intelligibility in Anselm, Grosseteste, and Bonaventure,” 107. Following Noone, though further connecting Anselm’s simultaneously fideistic and rationalist impulses in On Truth with its empirical method, Cooper writes: “This juxtaposition of theological and philosophical elements in the purpose of De veritate, and thus also in its starting-points, is reflected in the methodology Anselm employs in the dialogue: he uses an inductive procedure, grounded upon common opinion, and arrives at conclusions by means of dialectic, but he also appeals to Scripture.” Cooper, Two Medieval Accounts of Truth, 46.

Faith in Truth Seeking Understanding of Truth

Making (Up) the Truth With Anselm, part 2

As its title indicates, On Truth is at one level merely a focused study in how we use the single word truth. At another level, however, owing to the universal or transcendental nature of the concept of truth, in the course of his discussion Anselm provides perhaps the best summary of his thought in general, as the work contains many of the essential elements of his theology, metaphysics, epistemology, theory of language, philosophical anthropology, and ethics. In his Proslogion, Anselm’s “single argument” was his premise that God is something than which nothing greater can be thought, and from which everything else was seen to follow. In the present dialogue, Anselm’s “single argument,” as we might call it, is the premise that God is the Supreme Truth from which every other created truth is seen to follow.

The dialogue opens with “the Student” confessing that “we believe that God is truth” (deum veritatem esse credimus—ch. 1), and so asking his “Teacher” how this belief agrees with the fact that “we say that truth is in many other things” (veritatem in multis aliis dicimus esse).[1] Similar to the Proslogion, then, On Truth begins with an express statement of faith seeking understanding of that which is believed. Yet the Student implicitly recognizes that the question of truth is not limited to those individuals who begin with faith, for he points out that the question is also one that arises within the context of the Teacher’s own Monologion (thus clearly identifying Anselm as the Teacher, were there any doubt on the matter) and whose declared method, we may recall, was one of proceeding by “reason alone.”[2] In the Monologion, the Student rehearses, the Teacher had argued that insofar as true statements can never begin nor cease to be true, truth must therefore reside in the Supreme Truth who is eternal (Monol. 18). The question, then, is this: if Truth is uncreated in this way, how is it possible for us to say that so many created things are also true?

[1] As Travis Cooper observes, “the student clearly indicates that they maintain the first proposition–that God is truth–as a matter of belief.” Cooper, Two Medieval Accounts of Truth, 45.

[2] Thus, on the specifically eternal nature of truth, Cooper notes that for Anselm, in his Monologion, this is a “conclusion proven by argumentation from premises available to natural reason,” and notes that some commentators have gone so far as to “characterize Anselm’s method in De veritate as sola ratione.” Cooper, Two Medieval Accounts of Truth, 45 and 61, citing Jan A. Aertsen, “Fröhliche Wissenschaft: Wahrheit im Mittelalter,” in Ende und Vollendung: Eschatologische Perspektiven im Mittelalter, eds. J.A. Aertsen and Martin Pickave, Miscellanea Mediaevalia 29 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2002), 54, and Franciscus Salesius Schmitt, “Introduction to Anselm von Canterbury: De veritate,” in Anselm of Canterbury, Über die Wahrheit, trans. Schmitt (Stuttgart-Bad Canstatt: Friedrich Frommann Verlag–Günther Holzboog, 1966), 8.