Universality of Truth

Perspective in Anthropology-The Thinker-Rodin
Rodin’s The Thinker

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.

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