Aletheia and Related Terms for Truth in Ancient Greek

  • Published 2015


"Aristotle defines truth for classical philosophy: 'to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.' (Metaphysics 1011b) This seems simple, but it is important to see that it is not. The formula synthesizes three distinct and in no way obvious or unobjectionable assumptions, assumptions which prove decisive for the career of truth in philosophy. First, the priority of nature over language, culture, or the effects of historical experience. One can say of what is that it is just in case there exists a what which is there, present, with an identity, form, or nature of its own. Second, the idea that truth is a kind of sameness, falsity a difference, between what is said and what there is. In another formula Aristotle says, 'he who thinks the separated to be separated and the combined to be combined has the truth, while he whose thought is in a state contrary to the objects is in error' (1051b). To be true, what you think separated must be what is separated-that is, they must be the same (the same form or eidos). To accommodate the priority of nature, however, truth has to be a secondary sort of sameness: according to the classical metaphor, the imitation of original by copy. It is up to us to copy Nature's originals, whose identity and existence are determined by causes prior to and independent of local convention. Thus a third feature of classical truth: the secondary and derivative character of the signs by which truth is symbolized and communicated. Classical truth subordinates the being (the existence and identity) of signs (linguistic or otherwise) to the natural, physical, finally given presence of the non-signs they stand for." (...) Heidegger remarks that 'in ontological problematic, being and truth have from time immemorial been brought together if not entirely identified (Sein und Zeit, 228). He thinks this is a kind of hint. There is, however, reason to think it is an originally meaningless accident of historical grammar. To be is spoken in many ways, but for Aristotle 'it is obvious that of these the what-something-is, which signifies the substance, is the first' (1028a). In a study of the Greek verb 'be' (einai), Charles Kahn shows the priority of its use as a predicating copula and the corresponding insignificance of the difference between existing and not existing. 'Both of them,' he writes of Plato and Aristotle, 'systematically subordinate the notion of existence to predication, and both tend to express the former by means of the latter. In their view to be is to be a definite kind of thing.' In contrast to what something is, the factor of existing, if it appears at all, appears secondary and of no distinct significance. For both, 'existence is always einai ti, being something or other, being something definite. There is no concept of existence as such.' This is not to say that Aristotle, for instance, is oblivious of the difference between what a thing is and its existence. Joseph Owens observes, 'Aristotle does not for an instant deny existence. He readily admits it in Being per accidens. But he does not seem even to suspect that it is an act worthy of any special consideration, or that it is capable of philosophical treatment.' (1) Kahn also describes a so-called veridical use of the Greek 'be' according to which it 'must be translated by 'is true,' 'is so,' 'is the case,' or by some equivalent phrase.' He remarks that 'instead of existence ... it was another use of to be that gave Parmenides and Plato their philosophical starting point: the veridical use of esti and on for 'the facts' that a true statement must convey. Thus the Greek concept of Being takes its rise from ... this notion of what is as whatever distinguishes truth from falsehood ... doctrines of Being first arose in Greece in connection with the question: what must reality be like for knowledge and informative discourse to be possible and for statements and beliefs of the form X is Y to be true?' To ask what reality must be like for sentences to be true implies that truth in sentences is their being like what is. Kahn writes, 'the pre-philosophic conception of truth in Greek ... involves some kind of correlation or fit between what is said or thought, on one side, and what is or what is the case or the way things are on the other side.' As veridical, the Greek esti 'poses a relation between a given descriptive content and the world to which it refers or which it purports to describe ... truth depends on some point of similarity or agreement between the two.' Truth, in Greek, is the virtue of a discourse that subordinates itself to what is, assuming second hand the same form as the beings whose being makes the discourse true. 'If we bear in mind the structure of the veridical use of the verb, we will easily see how the philosophers' interest in knowledge and truth, taken together with this use of 'to be,' immediately leads to the concept of Being as ... the facts that make true statements true.' (2)" Aletheia and Related Terms for Truth in Ancient Greek

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@inproceedings{2015AletheiaAR, title={Aletheia and Related Terms for Truth in Ancient Greek}, author={}, year={2015} }