The Nature of Truth — Relative or Objective?

“Two things that are equal to each other are equal to the same thing. Of all truths, this is self evident.” — Euclid

“The best place to find truths that are indisputable is nature. Observe those things where natural law is all that governs what happens, and you will find the truth.” — Kent Allen Halliburton

When considering the nature of truth, the first thing that comes to mind is a quote from Plato’s Symposium, “Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities, for he has hold not of an image but of a reality, and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may.” This basically says that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. The same applies to truth. What one person understands and knows to be true can be totally different from what someone else understands and knows to be true. This means that truth, by human nature, is relative. In our minds it cannot absolute. It can vary from one source to another, and from one person to the next. Why else would there be varying stories about the same event? Truth is a matter of perception. It cannot truly be objective, to humanity, because no one event will ever be seen the same way by everyone. The only place that truth can be indisputable is nature, but even that is relative to human perception.

In, Representing Truth: Sojourner Truth’s Knowing and Being Known, Nell Irvin Painter discusses the nature of how truth is obtained by examining the ways in which Sojourner Truth, an illiterate former slave, came to know what she knew and how she was then able to teach others what she knew. Sojourner Truth did not know how to read and write, and thus, could not gain knowledge, or ‘truth,’ from books or any other written media the same way that other people would. This, however, did not mean that she was incapable of learning. She was a highly skilled houseworker, i.e. cook, maid and the like, because she was taught ‘hands on’ how to fulfill the requirements of the job. She was also a good speaker because she observed others speaking and practiced her own speaking skills while at work in people’s homes. She also gained knowledge through divine inspiration or ‘faith’ by listening to God. She also had people read to her while she listened. She may not have been able to read the words on a page, but in this way, she would understand what a book was about.

Painter also discusses the nature of truth by examining other people’s perceptions of Sojourner Truth. Sojourner did not just take in everything that she learned and then keep it to herself. She spoke in public, dictated letters, and even dictated her autobiography to Olive Gilbert. In her travels, whilst giving her speeches or looking for truth herself, Sojourner met many people. One such person, Frederick Douglas, observed Sojourner to be a, “strange compound of wit and wisdom, of wild enthusiasm and flint-like common sense.” Another such person, Gilbert Vale, commented that while Sojourner was not necessarily beautiful, she had a strong body and was a woman of “shrewd common sense and energetic manners.” These observations were made of a woman that had absolutely no formal education, whatsoever. She defied the idea that illiteracy made a person ignorant. This idea that many educated people hold, was thus put into question, proving that truth is, in fact, relative. Furthermore, Sojourner Truth would never, if ever asked, have considered herself to be ignorant.

In Chapter 3 of Berkhofer’s book, Beyond the Great Story, entitled “Historical Representations and Truthfulness,” Berkhofer points out at the very beginning of the chapter, with a reference to the then approaching five-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of the Americas, the relative nature of history. Should Columbus’ arrival in the Americas be labeled as an invasion, a conquest, an encounter, an interaction, an intervention, or something else? He also points out that because of historian’s knowledge of this, they attempt to create tools to minimize this relative nature of history. At the end of the chapter, he points out the nationalistic nature of history and how that can affect the stories being told by historians.

When reading written histories as a student, especially as an undergraduate, one tends to approach each book or article that is being read, as factual, or as ‘the truth.’ Most of the time, there is really no thought given to the notion that the book or article, while full of ‘commonly understood’ facts, is also full of interpretations. The author has taken the time to interpret the sources available on an event in history and has then written out the history of that event according to their own understanding of the sources. The truth of a historical event is what actually happened, but as is the case with most historical accounts, the author was not actually there, so the book or article written on the event is not actually the truth but rather an attempt to tell the truth. This is why truth in history is relative. Two authors can interpret the same events differently, producing two different accounts of a given event.

In chapters 1 and 2 of, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, Peter Novick discusses the nature of objectivity in the process of writing history. In these two chapters he essentially states that objectivity is a sham. It is not possible for any person to be completely objective when writing history, as their interpretations of events will always be affected by their biases. To exemplify this fact, he points to Ranke in Germany and early American Historian’s interpretations of his ideas. Ranke was big on research, but he also believed that God played a big role in history. American’s idolized Ranke as a purely empirical historian, something he was not. Novick also points out that contemporaries of Ranke would very quickly have argued that this was not the case. Ranke’s contemporaries and early American Historians had two very different interpretations of the truth.

If truth is not relative, why are there defense attorneys and prosecutors? These people each have the same facts of a given case sitting before them. Yet, it is their job to use those same facts to disprove one another. If truth is not relative, why do Winston Churchill and A.J.P. Taylor have differing opinions about foreign policy, as it relates to Adolf Hitler and the policy of appeasement? If truth is not relative, why are there opposing political parties? Lawyers, historians, and politicians each take the facts, and to the best of their ability, attempt to give an accurate account of what happened in a case, in the past, or what is happening in society today. That is all that they can do. What people must do then is decide which version of the story they believe most closely resembles the truth, and their personal biases will play a big role in that decision. It really is all relative. Even looking to nature is relative because different people will look to nature in different ways.