Is “truth” a loaded term?

By | February 8, 2010

“Truth” is a loaded term, my friend has said. “Let’s avoid it.”

A “loaded term” ? What could he have meant? Maybe that the term is vague and that people give it their own meaning with no guarantee that any two are talking about the same thing.

Sometimes we hear people talk as if truth were relative to the subject. “Your truth is not necessarily my truth.” Of course, this is just short for “truth as I see it” or “my version of truth.”

“Truth” is a term used by different people in different ways. The concept ‘truth’ is a concept applied by different people in different ways.

Consider this proposition: There are many different kinds of truth.

When the term “truth” is shorthand for someone’s (or some group’s) notion of truth, we can see that “truth” is a loaded term.

Often the context clarifies how the term “truth” is being used. A police investigator may need to determine who among a group of witnesses is telling the truth and who is not. Sometimes people tell falsehoods; sometimes they lie; and sometimes they tell the truth. There is no mystery here. The mystery and confusion come in when we hear about a preacher, or a politician, or a mystic who claims to bring us the ‘Truth’. A speculative philosopher may claim to furnish us with the absolute Truth. In these latter cases we should be skeptical.

The term “truth” is sullied so much by frauds of all kinds, preachers, priest, politicians, mystics, hucksters, salesmen, etc. that it should not surprise anyone that honest scientists and critical philosophers tend to avoid using term.

Often the phrase “seeking the truth” merely means that we try to find out what happened, as in “What happened when the German army invaded Poland?” or “Did the defendant assault the victim as the prosecution claims?”
Sometimes we want to say: We speak the truth when our words correspond to the way the world is; or what we say accurately describes the way the world is; or what we say accurately reports what actually happened.

The easy game: Objective reality is there before us, and we simply report it or describe it.

“Seeking the truth” is often shorthand for “seeking to know a specific, local fact”: e.g., that William Clinton was U.S. President in 1995; or that Mt. Everest is over 28,000 feet high; or that the state of Colorado directly borders the state of New Mexico on the north.

The notion of absolute, universal, complete Truth strikes me as something perpetuated by theologians and metaphysicians.

Isn’t truth (any truth) always associated with a knowing subject?

Is “truth” a loaded term?

Suppose we’re trying to find out what happened in dispute between two people who give contradictory accounts. Joe claims that Ben assaulted him; Ben denies it. “They can’t both be telling the truth,” we might say. So we try to determine who told the truth and who spoke falsely. You might say that our job is to try to get at the truth in this matter.

After our investigation we might come up with an account of what actually happened, (Ben did in fact attack Joe) ….”as nearly as we can tell, this seems to be what really occurred.”

Eventually we establish that Joe told the truth and Ben was lying. In such a case, we work to discover the facts, and in so doing we learn what the truth is in this particular case. We learn also who speaks the truth and who does not.

Here we are talking about facts or actual events. (Facts: how things are or happen in the world.)

Such clear-cut, pedestrian cases of ‘truth’ and ‘truth-seeking’ would seem to be unproblematic. Police investigators have to do it daily. Here we would not expect anyone to say that “truth” is a loaded term.


Certainly most people have no problem understanding the difference between fact and fiction. We certainly understand this distinction when it is applied to literature, when we refer to works of fiction and nonfiction. And we understand it when applied to the worlds of drama and movie making. Drama can deal with fictional stories and fictional characters, or it can be about actual, historical persons and recount factual events. A movie can be purely fictional (even a fantasy, e.g., the “Star Wars” series) or it can focus on historical persons and events, even to the extent of being a documentary (e.g. “The Longest Day”).
There’s a clear-cut difference between a biography about Abraham Lincoln and the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, or any story of fantasy with made-up characters. Surely no one would confuse these two, or dispute the claim that the former falls in the class of nonfiction, (it portrays a historical person and and describes actual events).

However, many other cases are not so simple and clear-cut. A work of fiction (e.g., a novel) can have many factual, historical elements in it (as in a historical novel); and a work that purports to be non-fiction, can actually contain much that is fictional (the author had a political purpose or let his ideological bias carry him away) which is presented as if factual. Consider, for example the controversy surrounding Oliver Stone’s films about the JFK assassination and Richard Nixon.
The distinction between fact and fiction also becomes very problematic in areas such as religion, politics, economics, social philosophy, and moral thought (this is not an exhaustive list by any means). Any area in which the values, bias, and attitude of the writer come into play are areas in which we cannot always be sure that we’re dealing with fact or fiction, history or myth. For example, take any “sacred writing” from any of the major religions: Bible (Old or New Testament), the Koran, etc. . . Can anyone be confident that the events depicted were factual, historical events, or that the persons described are really historical persons? The problem of separating fact from fiction here is great, the controversies old and apparently without end. Not surprisingly, then, many people conclude that the value of such sacred works are independent of their status as works of fiction or nonfiction, fantasy/myth or factuality; i.e. independent of the question of ‘truth.’


“Truth” may strike us a loaded term because we often use it as an evaluative term: a truthful person, a true doctrine, higher truth and so on. It may seem to some that “truth,” like “beauty,” is in the eye of the beholder. What you see as a “higher truth” or a “deeper truth” about human existence I may regard as mere confusion and mystical fluff.

Speculative, philosophical theories sometimes purport to define “truth” in all-comprehensive, metaphysical ways. This should certainly trigger our skeptical sensors.

[Here we have the term “Truth” with an upper case “T” or even all letters in the upper case: “TRUTH”.]

Certainly the way that “truth” is used in religious preachings load the term with doctrinal, ideological baggage. Don’t we often hear Christians say “Jesus is the truth”? Here we might ask how the term “truth” is being used.

A good example of this loaded use of the term “truth” is a Vatican document reported in the L.A. Times on Sept. 6, 2000. This document, which is written by Catholic conservatives, declares that Roman Catholicism is the sole path to salvation, and bases its declaration on the assumption that the Church has grasp of “universal and objective truth.” Such use of the term “truth” leads some scientists and critical rationalists to avoid use of the term, and thus avoid association with the arrogant “defenders of the truth,” those who proclaim that only they and their special group have access to ‘truth.’
[A simple question might stop all these proclamations as to the truth: How exactly did your group acquire knowledge regarding this truth? ]

Religious people and speculative metaphysicians tend to talk about truth in the big sense of “TRUTH,” one that is universal and eternal.

Mathematical ‘truth’ has universal application. Does this qualify as universal, eternal truth?

(With apologies to Nietzsche) Talk of universal, eternal truth is just a substitute for talk of deity. Man cannot relinquish the urge to project his ideals into the objective realm. He projects metaphysical and theological truths. He projects deities.

Most scientists and critical writers avoid talking about truth(s). They simply go about their work of exploration and explanation, analysis and clarification.

Work in the natural sciences means you do not invoke gods, miracles, or metaphysical truth. The natural scientist just goes about his work.

There may be a connection between the philosopher’s inclination to system-building and the urge to invoke ‘Truth’ on a grand scale.
However, the work of science, empirical inquiry, the testing of hypotheses, and such does not fit well with systems and notions of truth on a grand scale.

2 thoughts on “Is “truth” a loaded term?

  1. Ripis

    Well, this item covers a wide range. Allow me to add to its scope in three ways: as a matter of culture, truth in fiction, and truth in logic.

    Truth uses different seeds in different cultures (‘languages’ if you wish). In English, ‘truth’ began as a cognate of ‘troth’ as in ‘betroth’ meaning ‘pledge’ or ‘promise’; hence truth is what we agree to; which sense is used in science as in ‘consensus of knowledgeable experts’. In Greek, ‘truth’ is from ‘alethia’, meaning ‘not escaped notice’; hence truth insists on being seen; which sense is used in science and philosophy as ‘an incontrovertible observation’. In French, ‘vrai’, I intuit, has an origin in regal fiat (but I stand to be corrected). So different cultures presume different pathways to what is called ‘true’; which sense is found in law as ‘true because an authority says so’.

    Fiction can be truth “to life” in the sense that a fictional character is truly representative of a socio- or psychic-type of person, even though no individual in the real-world instantiates the specific type exactly. This is why Homer is such a great treasure—his characters moved real persons to emulate his fiction.

    In most uses, ‘true’ and ‘false’ admit comparative (‘truer’ or ‘more false’) and superlative (‘truest’ and ‘most false’) forms; hence we may say ‘most truthfully’ which makes truth a mode of being and becoming.

    Truth in logic, I dare say, is the mature duck in the family of truthful swans. The fact that logical truth makes the most noise in philosophy is not a good reason to find it the most beautiful.

    1. jbernal Post author

      Ripis, you’re right to note the variety of uses of the term “truth”; and you bring in some interesting differences in usage and connotations from different languages. Good additions to my somewhat disconnected musings on the issue of truth. You’re right that sometimes people in philosophy have a restricted sense of what people mean when they speak of truth, and philosophers certainly are not in a position to ‘legislate’ on correct usage.

      Much of my complaint has to do with a metaphysical flavor that many philosophers add to discussions of truth: that somehow or other ‘Truth’ is something that sits out there in the world waiting to be discovered. This way of talking, admittedly useful in some contexts, tends to mislead in my view. Should I say, that is the truth about the matter? Hopefully not.


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