Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thinking Truth Non-Propositionally

"I am the Way and the Truth and the Life."

I regard the statement as true.  As such, it is a  propositional truth.   Precisely how a  statement is a propositional truth is a matter of considerable debate, of course.   Some say it is true because regarding it so issues in desirable effects.  "Truth is what works," declares the confident pragmatist.

Others say it is true because it coheres appropriately with a wider class of statements.  It is consistent  with them, and it, and the wider class of statements, mutually presuppose each other so that there are no arbitrary and disconnected statements from which the statement is deducible.   Getting clear on the coherence theory of truth is never easy because it is not perspicuous what the precise boundaries of coherence are.  

Many say that the statement is propositionally true because it appropriately states what is the case.   Getting precision on what is the case apart from the statement, and what the appropriate way is in which the statement and the extra-linguistic states of affairs relate, is not altogether facile.  What constitutes the criterion by which to adjudicate when a statement appropriately states the case?  If there is an isomorphism between statement and the reality it depicts?  If so, what are the relata of the relations isomorphically obtaining?

In the absence of clear criteria which unfailingly picks out the truth of a putative propositional truth, some claim that the truth of propositional truth is primitive.  One need not have some elaborate theory of meaning which, when appropriately satisfied, delivers truth.   One could start with truth and discern that  meaning in some way is derivative upon that.

Whatever be one's theory, the notion that truth is propositional is standard fare in philosophical thinking.   A philosopher can give alternative accounts of how the truth of "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life" is true.  This much is certain.   But the philosopher runs into a brick wall when trying to think the content of the proposition in which  utterer is identified with Truth itself.  What could this mean?   How could truth be non-propositional?   How can truth be non-linguistic?  What does it mean to say that 'Jesus' is 'Truth'?

One might at this point say that 'truth' just means 'reality', and that Jesus is thus 'real'.   But this way of proceeding is fraught with much difficulty because to say 'Jesus is Truth' is clearly intended to say more than 'Jesus is real', for one would quite glibly say 'the ball is real', but never aver 'the ball is truth'.

There are two more promising steps forward, one Hegelian and one Heideggerian.   Hegel famously claimed, "Diese Gegenstaende sind wahr, wenn sie das sind, was sie sein sollen, d.h. wenn ihre Realitaet ihrem Begriff entspricht" ("Objects are true if they are as they ought to be, that is, when their reality corresponds to their notion."). [Enzyklopaedie, Wissenschaft der Logik (1830), 213, n. 127] Accordingly, Jesus is 'truth' in that he corresponds fully to the concept of what it is to be the God-man.  But is this "correspondence" really non-propositional?   Think what it would be to specify how a thing corresponds without using concepts expressible in language.  How could one thing not be another thing in the absence of that which differentiates?   And how can that which differentiates not finally be expressible in language?

Another way forward is Heideggerian.  Famously Heidegger argued that alethia (truth) is a unconcealing (Unverborgenheit) or as an Entbergung or "unveiling."   Early on Heidegger found the phenomenon of unveiling as the ontological ground for the possibility of truth.  However, later Heidegger admitted that die Frage nach der Unverborgenheit als solcher ist nicht die Frage nach die Wahrheit.  (Maybe he realized that if truth needed an ontological ground in unconcealing, falsity needed one in concealing.)   Whatever might be thought of Heidegger's turn away from truth as unconcealing in his Das Ende der Philosophie und die Aufgabe des Denkens, he remained convinced that truth had something to do with correctness, and that correctness had everything to do with unveiling.  But how can one claim that the experience of unveiling ontologically grounds truth when this experience could as easily be described as truth's effect?

Given what has been said, how is it unquestionably possible for Jesus to be 'the Truth'?   Moreover, if Jesus is identified with God's self-revelation, then how can that revelation be true?   The standard move here is to distinguish between the objective, historical process of revelation and the subjective interpretation of that revelation.  (One might claim a la Pannenberg that a distinction holds between the "outer revelation" and the "inspiration" as the interpretation of these events in the Biblical witnesses.)  While the first is putatively non-propositional, the second is not.  But what is it to be a manifestation of God in and through historical events, that is, in and through particular things?  Furthermore, how could such a manifestation be non-linguistic?  If Stacia is a "true friend," but Bob is not, then what is it about Stacia that distinguishes her over and against Bob; what is that "it" that is not in principle capturable by language?

Twentieth century theology, in its effort to escape the "propositional theory of truth" with respect to divine revelation - - the generally-regarded spurious claim that divine revelation is an impartation of information -- seems to lurch into a semantic crevasse of vanquished lucidity.   Simply put, one  does not know what one is talking about when discoursing about a revelation that is in principle non-propositional.   That God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself could, after all, be true, but what is true is the fact that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.  A revelation that cannot be expressed as fact is finally too amorphous to be revelatory; such a revelation is ultimately a night in which all cows are black.  


  1. Hi Dr. Bielfeldt,

    I just want to thank you for your posts. I was a student of yours, who was struggling with his faith. But you brought me back to the truth. Your words and wisdom provided light for me,while i was in darkness. I just wanted you to know that your posts on this blog and your classes brought a student back from the separation of sin from God.

    Thank you,
    Jared Larson

  2. Thanks so much for this email! If you ever get back to Brookings, Jared, I would love to talk with you. You can reach me at I hope you had a great summer!