‘Context is all’ (Margaret Atwood). Does this mean that there is no such thing as truth?

“Never … ask for the meaning of a word in isolation, but only in the context of a proposition” -Frege

If I ask for the opposite of ‘light’, the first question that I will be asked is in which context do I want to know the opposite of light – whether it is in the context of weight I am talking about (in which case it would be heavy) or in context of shade (in which case it would be ‘dark’). The problem with trying to understand an issue is that one should know in what context it needs to be seen in. The question arises: Had I not mentioned the meaning of light in the context I was talking about, I would have perhaps been told that the opposite of light as what the listener may think of light at that time. So would that be the right answer? We cannot say because in a way both can be the ‘right’ answers. Context in a sense give a scope or a criteria, in which a particular knowledge can be assessed. If we did not know the context, we can not be sure to what extent the particular knowledge we have is right or true.

Now before I say the statement ‘the opposite of light is heavy’ or ‘the opposite of light is dark’ is true, let us explore what do we mean by truth. To me, something is true only if it exists – as in it is there in this world materially or abstractly. But, just to see the meaning in different context, let us see the meaning of truth in different dictionaries. Truth according to Webster Dictionary is ‘a judgement, proposition or an idea that is true or accepted as true’. Truth according to Dictionary.com is ‘conformity with fact or reality’. Truth, as per Oxford dictionary is ‘a verified or indisputable fact’. Isn’t it ironic that the word that is associated with reality or surety has an enigmatic meaning itself?

Now, let us pause for a moment and think about this paradox: why is ‘truth’ even in definition so varied? Are there different truths for different things? The problem with defining ‘truth’ is that there are various ways which it can be interpreted in. Through centuries, philosophers and scholars have come up with numerous theories on ‘what‐truth is’. Each of the theories offer logical explanations and can present perspectives which are widely accepted to be applied to a broad set of occurrences that is observed in world.

One of the most eminent theories is the Correspondence theory, which states that ‘something is only true if it corresponds to a fact or an axiom(1). So statement ‘grass is green’ is true because grass is green in real word. The Coherence theory, on the other hand, states that ‘a proposition is only true if it fits in with the overall set of evidences or beliefs(2). There is no reason to believe that the Americans did not land on the moon because there is enough evidence given by NASA to show why it cannot be just a ‘conspiracy buff’. Another theory of truth, the Pragmatic theory, measures ‘truth’ in terms of usefulness and relevance in practical life. So accordingly, floating of a ship on water mean that Archimedes’ principle, on which principle of flotation is based, is true.

Though each of the theories seems to capture a fragment of ‘truth’ itself, personally I feel, none seem to do complete justice in explaining the nature of truth. As a believer in Correspondence theory, I might justify this theory with a statement like ‘the capital of Bulgaria is Sofia is true because it is a fact’. But what would I say to a statement like ‘There is no life in outer space’ which is not yet been proven as fact? Can it not be true? Coherence theory also fails to give sufficient conditions to distinguish between a truth and a lie. We know in case of many judicial trials, the Jury or The Judge could not unearth the “Truth”, because of their sole reliance on the presented evidence only, which may have been supporting the side which was untrue. Furthermore, Pragmatic theory ignores a lot of knowledge that may not be important in some context. Will a Pragmatist be right in saying that “Madonna’s last name is Louise Ciccone” is not true just because it is trivial information to him in his daily life? Thus we see that each theory differs from the other theory on the basis of context.

Then is it enough to say that “Truth” depends on the context only? To an extent, it does make sense for us to be arriving at such a conclusion, but we cannot yet say truth is always contextual. My baby cousin may think at the moment that tooth fairies exist while I have grown out of it. However, it is absurd to say that they exist for my cousin but not for me. Regardless of what is said or believed, tooth fairies do not exist – a fact, which cannot be manipulated by any context. So, certain truth can exist without context. Furthermore, the statement ‘context is all’ is self-contradictory because if it is true then there is one statement (Context is all) that remains true regardless of the context.

Looking through context may at times lead to a disagreement or a dispute between people with different perspectives about the same subject. But that does not mean there is no truth in either perspective. A statement as ‘Got‐the‐keys’ seems harmless enough at the first glance, but let me assure you that statement got my dad and I locked out of our house for an entire night. Before leaving the house I heard my dad say ‘Got the keys’ to which I responded ‘yeah… OK’ and closed the door. It was after coming back I got a shock when my dad asked my for the keys and I told him he said he had it when I left. He looked at me dangerously saying ‘No… I asked a question ‘Got the keys?’ to which you said ‘yeah… OK’, remember?’ Though I could accept his argument, I could not say I was wrong in my view because I heard him say ‘Got the keys’ as in ‘I got the keys’ (to which I said ‘yeah… OK’ and shut the door). Both of us were speaking the truth within our own context.

Sometimes a statement can be true within a context though it may be dependent on context. It is like saying 2 + 2 = 4 is true in mathematical context or every action has an equal and an opposite reaction in Newtonian context. Both the statements are true, though in a context. The theory of relativity states that one cannot know whether one is at rest (stationary) or moving at a velocity – it depends on one’s frame of reference. Though this theory may appear to instill the relativistic(4) nature of the universe, it does insist on one absolute truth – the value of the speed of light. So to state, that ‘there is no such thing as Truth’ is not correct because truth exists, whether within a context or across the contexts.

The concept of context rises due to one thing we humans have: perception. History is the witness to how context makes us see a fact or event in different lights – or different truths. When I am giving an IB history test, there are always questions on sources(5). Sometimes questions are on the reliability or the authenticity of the sources in order to make me get a more accurate image of what may have really happened by looking at when and by whom the source was made or written and what it is referring to – i.e. by looking at the context.

To me, the problem of denying anything such as truth, like being satisfied by the concept of relativism, seems extremely dogmatist. I think if we accept that ‘context is all’ then rather than solving the problem we are creating a new one because we can let our prejudice and belief see anything the way we want to. At the same time, refusing to just accept or take in account different evidences and beliefs before making a judgement seem to me as being ignorant and naive.

We cannot that deny that context plays a major role in getting to the truth. However, just because we do not know what the truth – the absolute truth – is, does not mean that it does not exist. Context gives or tries to give us ways to view the truth or fragments of the truth. Like in History, when we cannot be sure about the truth, then going through different interpretations of a certain event can be the only way to obtain the real picture of what must have happened. Truth is not something that can be decided upon, as done so by a community or by oneself: it may exist, whether we know it or not at that moment. That is to say, had I been bought up in a 16th century European community, then one of my undeniable truths would be about the existence of a giant tortoise on which our ‘flat’ planet rests.

NOTES

(1) – Lagemaat 2005

(2) – White n.d.

(3) – Lagemaat 2005

(4) – Relativism is a philosophy which states that everything is relative and absolute knowledge or truth does not exist. Its beliefs are analogous to the philosophy ‘Context is all’

(5) – An extract of a famous speech or a historian’s book or even a picture.

Bibliography

Lagemaat, Richard van de. Theory of Knowledge for IB diploma. Cambridge
University Press, 2005.

White, Alan R. Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume 2, ‘Coherence Theory of Truth’.

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