January 25, 2005
Kimball on Truth:
In a famous passage of The Confessions, St. Augustine asks "What, then, is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled." It is hard to read that passage without experiencing a shock of recognition. There is a basic sense in which, like St. Augustine, we all know what time is. As Einstein once observed, time is "what the clock measures." Any yet it is impossible not to feel that that answer, though correct, is somehow insufficient to the awesome reality of time--assuming, that is, that time is or has a reality and is not, as some philosophers have insisted, an illusion we contribute to make experience comprehensible.
When Plato described time as "the moving image of eternity," his formulation was more poetic than Einstein's, but not necessarily more satisfactory. The fact is that time, like many basic concepts, names an idea we are perfectly familiar with but that we may not be able to explain. Consider the concept of truth. There is an important sense in which we all know what truth is. We just couldn't get along in the world if we didn't. But being able to apply a concept in daily life does not necessarily mean we can define it. Or that we really understand it.
But even if subjectivity is truth, the problem of justification, of knowing what to answer when some asks you to explain, remains as pressing as it ever was. The history of speculation about truth has prominently included what we might call a school of impatience that, instead of trying to solve the problem, has endeavored to dismiss it.
All the varieties of scepticism belong to the school of impatience, as do pragmatists like the American psychologist/philosopher William James who defined truth as "what works." (The 20th-century Australian philosopher David Stove spoke in this context of "the American philosophical tradition of self-indulgence, or to give it its usual name, pragmatism.") The school of impatience tends to flourish in cynical ages, and so it is not surprising that it is immensely popular in our own age.
There is something discomfiting about confronting basic questions to which one has no, or only inadequate, answers. Faced with the question "What is truth?" it is much easier to behave as Pontius Pilate did and just wash one's hands.
Easier, but not finally more satisfying. The school of impatience has the advantage of distracting us from questions we may not be able to answer. But it has the great disadvantage of distracting us from questions that continue to matter, whether or not we can answer them.
As it pertains to art and criticism, the skeptical impulse is too often allowed to preemptively quash judgment. While questions along the lines of 'on what basis are judgments to be made' are crucial and probably what we're ultimately about, the lack of a solid answer ought not disqualify judgment altogether. Skepticism is a fine, indeed, healthy thing. But it can too easily become a crutch for avoiding engagement.
Of course I hasten to add that, in addition to the scores of knee-jerk skeptics in its ranks, the mighty School of Impatience also harbors its fair share of conservative reactionaries, always so impatiently aghast that their received truths might possibly be open to question.
It seems the flip-side of the sophist's interminable skepticism would be the conservative's self-satisfied certainty.
[Update: via Grammar.police (on Kimball's tortured take on the "perils of sexual liberation"), Matthew Yglesias, who is very well acquainted, too, with matters metaphysical, and Brad Plumer take Kimball to task for his treatment of philosophy since Nietzsche, in which the artful Roger appears to be rather, err, impatient in his own skepticism. Yglesias: "... of course the philosophers he thinks are merely 'dismissing' the problem are doing no such thing. Kimball may not approve of, say, Richard Rorty or Donald Davidson but they're certainly writing on the subject." (Cf also: the ungenerous swipe at pragmatism quoted above.)]
"Judgment, Skepticism and Impatience"
Posted by Dan at 07:50 PM
Armavirumque: A few thoughts about truth—Roger Kimball
Armavirumque: Some perils of sexual liberation
Bradford Plumer: Tenured Radicals
From the Floor: Why We're Called 'From the Floor'
FrontPage: Susan Sontag: An Obituary
Grammar.police: Roger and Me
Iconoduel: In Defense of Visual Studies
Matthew Yglesias: Truth and Consequences
National Review Online: The Rape of the Masters—John J. Miller with Roger Kimball