It is difficult to think of a topic of greater concern than the nature of truth. Indeed, truth and the knowledge thereof are the very rails upon which people ought to live their lives. And over the centuries, the classic correspondence theory of truth has outlived most of its critics. But these are postmodern times, or so we are often told, and the classic model, once ensconced deeply in the Western psyche, must now be replaced by a neopragmatist or some other anti-realist model of truth, at least for those concerned with the rampant victimization raging all around us. Thus, “we hold these truths to be self evident” now reads “our socially constructed selves arbitrarily agree that certain chunks of language are to be esteemed in our linguistic community.” Something has gone wrong here, and paraphrasing the words of Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Newman, “We came, we saw, and we conked out!”
The whole premise of the public argument, if it is to be civilized and civilizing, is that the consensus is real, that among the people everything is not in doubt, but that there is a core of agreement, accord, concurrence, acquiescence. We hold certain truths, therefore we can argue about them. It seems to have been one of the corruptions of intelligence by positivism to assume that argument ends when agreement is reached. In a basic sense the reverse is true. There can be no argument except on the premise, and within a context, of agreement. Mutatis mutandis, this is true of scientific, philosophical, and theological argument. It is no less true of political argument.
According to methodism, one must know how one knows before one can know and if one cannot answer the skeptical question of how one knows, then one is defeated by the skeptic. By contrast, epistemological particularism is the view that there are some particular items of knowledge (or justifiable belief) that one can know (justifiably believe) without knowing how one knows them, without the need for criteria for knowledge. According to the particularist, the skeptical question of how people know what they know is a heuristic guide for insight, for extending knowledge from clear paradigm cases to borderline cases. This is done by surfacing from clear cases certain criteria for knowledge (which are justified from prior knowledge of the clear cases and not vice versa), and employing these criteria to borderline cases in order to extend knowledge.
Sartre employs … examples like a young soldier deciding whether to go to war or to stay home and be his mother’s consolation … to show the difficulty of making certain ethical determinations, and writing like this in conjunction with the widespread use of what Christian Hoff-Sommers has called “dilemma ethics” — moral dialogue focused on trying to decide the “hard cases” — have contributed to the notion that the whole field of ethics is colored grey. The old certainties are gone; ambiguity wins the day. Everything is up for grabs when it comes to questions of morality. ¶ Despite the common nature of such views, most decisions in ethics are not fraught with ambiguity and tensions between commensurate competing commitments. As is obvious from clear examples of moral behavior, the vast majority of people’s moral intuitions remain intact and quite strong. Perhaps ethics are too often thought about in terms of the peripheral dilemmas and occasional ambiguities, overlooking and thereby skewing our perception of the vast intuitive area of agreement that actually obtains both across diverse cultures and throughout the centuries of human history. Perhaps morality has to be seen at its best, or at its worst, for it is then our intuitions are felt the strongest and distinctive features of moral facts most clearly apprehended, with no ambiguities or heart-wrenching dilemmas to cloud our vision. Eventually those dilemmas have to be accounted for as well, but the suggestion here is that they are not the proper place to begin.
“The problem of the criterion” seems to me to be one of the most important and one of the most difficult of all the problems of philosophy. I am tempted to say that one has not begun to philosophize until one has faced this problem and has recognized how unappealing, in the end, each of the possible solutions is. I have chosen this problem as my topic for the Aquinas Lecture because what first set me to thinking about it (and I remain obsessed by it) were two treatises of twentieth century scholastic philosophy. I refer first to P. Coffey’s two-volume work, Epistemology or the Theory of Knowledge, published in 1917.1 This led me in turn to the treatises of Coffey’s great teacher, Cardinal D. J. Mercier: Critériologie générale our théorie générale de la certitude.2 ¶ Mercier and, following him, Coffey set the problem correctly, I think, and have seen what is necessary for its solution. But I shall not discuss their views in detail. I shall formulate the problem; then note what, according to Mercier, is necessary if we are to solve the problem; then sketch my own solution; and, finally, note the limitations of my approach to the problem.
Truth is as much the first want as it is the first good of mankind: yes, truth in religion, which by giving us high and pure ideas of the Divinity, teaches us that our homage ought to be worthy of it; truth in morality, which without rigour, as without weak indulgence, traces out to men in all situations their respective duties; truth in policy, which by rendering authority more just, and subjects more submissive, protects governments from the passions of the multitude, and the multitude from the tyranny of governments; truth in our tribunals, which makes vice afraid, reassures and comforts the innocent, and conduces to the triumph of justice; truth in education, which by rendering conduct accordant with doctrine, makes teachers to be the models, as well as the masters of infancy and youth; truth in literature and in the arts, which preserves them from the contagion of bad taste, from false ornaments, and from false thoughts; truth in the commerce of life, which by banishing fraud and imposture, warrants the common safety; truth in every thing, truth before every thing, this is that which the whole human race from its inmost soul is ever seeking, so thoroughly convinced are all men that truth is useful and falsehood hurtful.