Universality of Truth

Universality of Truth

Universality of Truth

Now this is an article that is going to upset a lot of people but at the same time it will cause a lot of people to reflect on something that we so easily take for granted. As anthropologists, we are charged with trying to understand and explain what humans do and essentially why. We investigate similarities and variances, things that we share, and things that are private and sacred. We try to find underlining qualities that unite us as a species and set us apart as individuals. One very important part of our work is examining those characteristics that we all share in common. We call them the “universals” like sleeping, breathing, eating, movement, procreation, communication, our need to feel safe, to relax and grow. Malinowski called them the “seven basic needs” that we all share within our societies.  But what about the concept of truth – and is it a universal or just a construct? Does it cross cultural, linguistic, social, and scientific boundaries in an attempt to define and validate our understanding, practices and systems of knowledge? It would seem that this should be an epistemological concern of some importance to us as living, working, and speaking beings.

It might be possible to retrace the entire history of mankind to examine the constituent process and development of what we term truth. But then that would require a voluminous work outside the scope of this article. But what we can do is attempt to sketch out the form(s) of its locus of interpretation in order to explain what is underneath a concept so complex.

We are usually inclined to believe, for political or social reasons, that the closer something is defined in terms of scientific or mathematical forms, processes or techniques (to include statistical mechanisms and expert pronouncements), the nearer it is to what we term the truth. At first glance, one could say that this is a proper form of rationality by means of which information and knowledge in our modern day lives constitutes an unconscious representation of truth. But then again, when we begin to investigate the unique modes of access to it and the different sorts of models utilized by it, we begin to discover its formalization and limitations. Foucault states that there is no such thing as “one” truth. In fact, he states there are five different “faces” of truth. There is the criterial, constructivist, perspectivist, experiential, and finally the tacit-realist notions of truth. Depending on your locus of control, truth in each case has a different meaning, function, and value.

In a broad sense, Foucault’s description of the criterial use of truth has to do with the way a society defines truth.  That is, each society has what it defines as its own domain of truth; the types of discourse that it accepts as true; and the mechanisms that enable it to distinguish truth from falseness. Obviously, this notion is relativistic and characteristically similar to cultural relativism, however and according to Foucault, it does not apply only to social and cultural perceptions. In fact, Foucault suggests that relations of power intervene in modifying a society’s understanding and perception of truth.

We can characterize Foucault’s constructionist use of truth as the mechanisms, techniques and procedures that power produces in its relation to truth.  Whereas in Foucault’s criterial concept each society has its own domain of truth, it is in the constructionist notion that we see how
these truths are pressed into action.  However, we must remember that Foucault is not speaking in terms of truth as ideology that defines or shapes our perception of it; he is speaking more precisely to the difference between what passes as truth and the ideological notion of truth.  In other words, his point is the difference between what is taken as true and operates through practices and conventions and that which is the shared belief of truth.

Perhaps, one of Foucault’s most significant and difficult concepts to understand concerning the use of truth is his perspectivist notion.  Clearly, he evokes an analysis that is characteristically Nietzschean in nature and deals with truth not as discourse related or power-produced but examines the very question of “why are we as human beings so obsessed with a pursuit for the truth?” Nietzsche states, “facts are precisely what there is not”…”only interpretations.”  But for Foucault, it is more than just a leveling of all claims to the same status. Rather, Foucauldian perspectivism denies the existence of a universally acceptable value for the description of truth.  Moreover, he makes the point that both science and philosophy seek such a description and are willing to rationalize all differences to obtain that objective.

Another concept of truth that Foucault maintains is the experiential use.  This form of truth may be represented by the distinction between truth as a result of inquiry and truth resulting from experience.  Foucault indicates that this type of truth is that which is gained through reflection in a need to understand those things that conflict with one’s values or beliefs.  These are circumstances that force individuals to question what they previously accepted as true and that challenges not only one’s belief but the criteria that one uses to discern truth.   Let us take as an example, the loss of faith in a love relationship after discovering infidelity. These are situations that call for applying new criteria for dealing with disturbing, perplexing events.

Foucault’s most confusing concept to understand concerning truth is the tacit-realist notion.  In this sense, he seems to be referring to things that are considered unproblematic but at the same time question consistency. It is this concept that is most vehemently attacked by his critics.  Critics claim that this concept is either inconsistent with his other descriptions of truth or he is unwittingly acknowledging the validity of objective truth.  However, in order to sort out the controversy, we first have to remember that Foucault does not offer a theory about the nature of truth.  Instead, his focus is on relations among the several different uses of truth; the normative importance of the search for truth; and the value that we attach to truth.  He does not profess any essential theory that may explain the postulation that what is true in one sense must be true in all senses.

Thus, it could be said that Foucault’s point is that “discourse” determines what we know as truth (except perhaps in the case of his perspectivist notion) and that truth is not a socio-historical product as many of us believe. But it should also be noted that Foucault’s conception of truth is probably one of the most startling propositions of truth since Nietzsche and that many analytic scholars dismiss his ideas as extremely relativistic or even radical.

As you can see, there are a number of ways any given issue can be viewed depending on one’s notion or perspective of what is termed true. Also, it should be clear how vain and idle are those wearisome discussions concerning doctrines, interpretations or opinions  that claim to be the truth, and to what conditions they may be subjected in order to become so. One clarificatory point, the next time someone evokes truth as the great internal basis of justification, take a moment to stop and reflect on its constituent forms.

Sources: Foucault, Michel. 1977. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, edited by D. F. Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; Foucault, Michel. 1984. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books; Foucault, Michel. 1980. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage; Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. 1967. Beyond Good and Evil. Walter Kaufmann (Trans). New York: Vintage Books; Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. 1982. Daybreak. R. J. Hollingdale (Trans). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; Szeman, Imre. 1993. Foucault, Genealogy, History. Problematique. 49-73; Photo: Courtesy of Corbis.



  1. “…it should be clear how vain and idle are those wearisome discussions concerning doctrines, interpretations or opinions that claim to be the truth, and to what conditions they may be subjected in order to become so. One clarificatory point, the next time someone evokes truth as the great internal basis of justification, take a moment to stop and reflect on its constituent forms”.

    …………and THAT is true…………..


    1. Dear Giovanni, thank you for visiting the site and reading the article. At times, some of the articles wax more philosophical than anthropological but Geertz once said that “all ethnography is part philosophy, and a good deal of the rest is confession.” tchau.


    2. truth is a funny word… sometimes one has no other word, except silence.

      the koan “mu” – mu is the japanese spelling for chinese “bu” which turns up in contemporay english in phrases like “he is the world’s greatest athlete not.” ‘bu’ at the end of the sentence negates it.

      do dogs have buddha nature?: “not”

      whatever you can say can be negated – that’s nature. that’s buddha nature.

      so “nothing” is truth. no joke. 🙂

      it’s existential in the sense that although language negates everything it posits still we get up and eat breakfast usually. all that all the scientific philosophical mathematical medical psychological logical arguments posit and negate in the end, “ultimatelty” don’t matter regardless of how unreal reality is.

      what’s buddha nature? “this shit stick is” – they didn’t use toilet paper or their fingers but a nice japanese piece of technology to wipe themselves clean and that’s the truth. 🙂


      1. Dear Isafakir,
        You are right, 無 is the affermative negation of negation-affirmation, within and beyond words, the Word.

        A question for you:
        But what about academic discourse and its rationale? They (we) cannot dwell into that “silence” you talked about…

        Thank you in advance,




        1. In reference to these comments, I can only say that my viewpoint concerning “truth,” and in this case, the representation, duplication or negation of words comes from my understanding of Foucault. In his work, “The Origin of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences” ( by the way, a book that is very dense and difficult to understand), in particular chapter 4, he addresses discourse and significance of language. I would suggest a reading (perhaps even a re-reading or two) of this work. Thank you for reading the article…tchau.


        2. as i understand my history, and it’s been a long time… hard to believe i was an undergraduate more than half a century ago … so some of what i used to know has lost some of its freshness and the files get corrupted … factual truth – the idea that one can agree that London is in England or that an apple grew on an apple tree … in science is based on the notion developed in english common law that a group of peers can ordinarily agree on facts — so in tort law the complainant can show that the owner of dog that i saw eating my chickens is harry [or larry or sally] and the jury can decide on whether it is harry or some other owner of the chicken eating dog, namely that facts are public and not metaphysical in most situations most people encounter most of the time. this commonplace practical understanding of truthful fact has more or less become the foundation of what is practiced as science. verifiability.

          i know i’m leaving a whole world of history out.

          so … imagine my surprise at the fact that between the time i took my first life altering courses in the study of anthropology and my first opportunity to share that life changing scientific study of human truth with other new learners in college, so much solid scientific fact had changed so dramatically and not as in the expose of Piltdown Man as a deliberate hoax but simply by the passage of time, hardworking serious professional scientists constantly work away at dissolving the fabric of fact in pursuit of truth. Einstein’s universe did not include galaxies going back billions of years. today’s basic anthropology courses in culture human biology linguistics sociology and economics of human everyday life just includes facts inconceivable as fact a half a century ago. teaching my first anthropology 101 courses, i chose instead of going through the syllabuses of basic anthropological knowledge, to set the basic questions of anthropology as tasks for my learners to solve in self organized groups and only then to share some key consensus answers. … that was decades before “task based learning” and “group work” and other academic techniques based on science not yet done in the early 1970s.

          in 1854, the First Vatican Counsel defined Mary, whom the church had given the title of Theotokos, Mother of God in 451, as conceived without sin – sin in roman catholic theology being actions more or less deliberately in opposition to god, a by various curious logics, it was catholic doctrine that all human babies occur in some sinful process, except the birth of jesus who is born of a sinless virgin. without adress ing any of that logic at all, this pronunciation of the Immaculate Conception necessitates the church to believe that “a life” begins at conception. this is “fact.”.

          so a typical roman catholic will say that “science” has “proven” that “a life” begins at conception. however there are additional facts that theologians don’t have to consider which are of real interest to scientists which make that roman catholic science inadequate when dealing with a “scientific” definition of “a life” … some zygotes become twins and triplets so now where there was one “life” we have multiple “lives” and of mosaic and chimera humans – single individuals with more than one set of chromosomes – such as when two zygotes combine into one embryo, where did the other “lives” go.

          so the current theological problem of when one becomes a “person” cannot be solved by addressing the “facts’ of conception” and “a life” cannot be said the “start” at conception. factuality has linguistic, cultural, social, political, metaphysical, philosophical pragmatic vectors that make different aspects of the same facts relevant so that factuality that cannot be nailed down to everyone’s common practical consensual understanding. many people want to put legal constraints on what science is allowed to know as fact.

          choosing like donald trump and apparently 40% of the usa population to live in a totally counterfactual universe has real life consequences which may or may not become perfectly clear if not in my lifetime, than ‘n the lifetimes of some who might read this. but that is little solace to the academic who cannot guarantee the the non-existance of Hobit Man and Homo denisova [who’ve bequeathed to me, Homo sapiens sapiens of Swiss origins, approximately 3% of my genome

          the fact that my boiled egg for breakfast was still a one celled zygote before i boiled it to death really does not make the question of whether it was conceived in sin or immaculately really of much interest. and the fact that Dorothy is the grandmother many times over of healthy grandchildren means that eventually a cloned human who cannot have been conceived either immaculately nor in sin will come to be “a life” – most likely not a native born American citizen, one might wager.

          truth and true facts for academics, IMHO, is a profound professional responsibility since so much depends upon getting it straight just as in tort law. it’s a profound professional responsibility in non-human primates and non-primate social species as well. it’s such an important responsibility in orcas that like us their mothers have independently of us evolved menopause since the senior mother is the reposititory of truth, as she is in elephants and other species. and one can legitamately condemn those religious leaders today who promote untruth in their quest for dominionism through an inveterate liar like donald trump. [it never ceases to amaze me that those who profess to follow an almighty god also seem to believe in their hearts that almighty god is too puny to run things alone but requires the help and solace of military force and political political power like mohammed al wahhab or franklin graham or al baghdadi or mike huckleberry to establish the authority of god’s almightiness, poor misunderstood god]

          IMHO opinion with my limited perspective, gate gate, para gate, parasam gate, bodhi svaha does not preclude a moral intellectual and spiritual aspiration to truth as a practical exercise. although there is no guarantee, i believe max planck argued that a less than 100% knowable truth allows an expansion of truth far beyond what was conceivable as true only a century ago, and history has shown that truth based on human imperfection [sinfulness?] is more interesting richer and more profound whatever profound or interesting mean – we’ll see.


          1. ooof my keyboard seems to have a life of its own, and things i have typed sometimes don’t apewear the way i was sure they were typed. even after proofing and correcting before hittinp the pot it button 😦


          2. Thank you so much for your response. I enjoyed reading every word of it. Obviously, you are a person with a background in anthropology and I would venture to guess an educator as well. As I read it, I could not help thinking “this person is ready for Foucault.” Allow me to explain. Clearly, Foucault is intellectually distant to many readers but not because he was trained in the European school of philosophy, situated mostly in the realm of Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, Nietzsche and Merleau-Ponty, but because his mode of expression and style are difficult to comprehend (his writings are very dense and his lectures hard to follow). It is true he had a propensity for addressing issues in “opposition” to established historical scholarship but he set for himself the task of examining how forms and processes relate to each other in the formation of scientific domains, political structures, and moral practices. What is crucial to Foucault’s analysis is that from these concepts, their interconnection and dependence, emerges discourses that have the capability of declaring for us what we consider as “true” or “false.” Foucault’s point is that discourse determines what we know as truth and that truth is “not” a socio-historical product. In other words, Foucault’s approach is to investigate the basis of knowledge systems in an effort to question their formation and acceptance. If you have the time, I would strongly recommend that you begin your journey of attempting to understand perhaps one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century – that is, if you have not already familiarized yourself with Foucault. Some years ago, I set out on a journey to devote two years to reading nothing but Foucault – it turned into four years and many re-readings of the same books. Good luck on your journey…tchau.


  2. Dear Neil, thank you for your reply. I think that my comment was quite obscure.

    I want to ask you: what about the truth that is intrinsic to academic pronouncement?

    How can Academia (and Foucault with it) escape from the absolute character that inhabit every proposition, even the proposition that affirms the relativity of all truth (or the existence of different “plateaux” of truth)?

    It seems that academia discourse, even when it speaks about the relativity of “truth”, it refers to a “meta-truth” where the philosopher/anthropologist can draw strength for her argument.

    That there are several concepts of truth is TRUE. What about this last “truth”? In which category it dwells?

    Thank you in advance for you reply.

    Sorry for my poor English.



    1. Dear Giovanni, Foucault has a lot to say about academia and throughout many of his writings questions the fundamental basis of how societies go about constructing their systems of knowledge particularly the “human sciences.” His notions of truth are revisionist (if I may use the term) and pluralistic which baffles some, alienates others, and many times prompts misinterpretation. Having said that, I suggest that you read Foucault and draw your own conclusions. I would recommend Discipline and Punish and The Order of Things to start with and then some of the books where he collaborates with other writers or they critique his writings (he is not an easy read and you may have to re-read to acquire a more in-depth understanding). I hope this helps.


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