I met Peter Vardy in a publishing meeting about two months ago, and will be having another meeting with him in a fortnight. We want him to write for us. He’s a very friendly, intense, intelligent and passionate guy. Speaking with him is like a combination of a reunion with your best friend from childhood, a post-grad algebra examination, reading [b:The Brothers Karamazov|4934|The Brothers Karamazov|Fyodor Dostoyevsky|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327882764s/4934.jpg|3393910] in your favourite chair and going for a thirty mile hike through the Pyrenees on a splendid Spring day. This is my way of speaking very highly of him indeed.
So, before the next meeting, I thought I should read some of his already published work.
What is truth?
This book fails to answer this question.
But it also succeeds, in its own measure…
Vardy isn’t really trying to answer the question, not Truthfully, anyway. As he points out on his first page: “In this book I want to try to defend the search for truth … [and to take] the search for truth seriously.” And he does this. Giving an answer to the question would actually oppose his argument completely. He concludes thusly:
“What is truth? …it is with those who do not know but passionately seek a perspicuous understanding of what it is to be human and then try to faithfully live this out. … Truth is always an approximation. We may never have the whole story, but this does not mean we may not have part of the story, which may mean widening our search to embrace not just philosophy, but also psychology, literature, poetry, drama, art and mysticism.”
Truth is coming to terms with your inability, as a human being, to ever fully know the Truth, but still striving to know anyway, and in that struggle, catching enough glimpses of it to ‘stake your life on it.’
“…and, knowing that they will never find it in its entirety, stake their lives on trying to live it.”
(Being the Camus-influenced Absurdist that I am, this sat very nicely with me, and there’s no surprise that he mentions Camus’ work on several occasions…)
Vardy is definitely orientated towards the idea of “living in truth” as opposed to the Wittgensteinian language game of truth manufacture. It’s a practicality: something that you strive towards and occupy, not something that you go, oh, okay, cool, now I know, gonna sit me back now and feel pretty fucking superior about that, yeah…
Vardy begins with some neat movement and ideological separation, particularly in the way he frames a dichotomy out of Kant, through Realism and Anti-realism:
“Realism is the theory of truth which claims that a statement is true if it corresponds to the state of affairs that it attempts to describe.” The affirmation of bivalence. “This does not mean that we can necessarily KNOW whether a given statement is either true or false, but this epistemological uncertainty does not undermine the claim that there is a truth to be known. Realist maintain that truth claims are verification transcendent—they do not depend on their ability to be verified.”
“Anti-realism … reject correspondence and instead maintains that statements are true because they cohere with other true statements made within a particular form of life. Anti-realist reject all attempts to make language mirror reality, and instead maintain that truth is essentially a human construct. They reject bivalence and instead claim that truth claims are internal to the community in which these truths are expressed.”
He deals with and follows the Anti-realist strand of thinking, which he characterises as the more dominant, through Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Ivan Karamazov from Dostoevsky’s [b:The Brothers Karamazov|4934|The Brothers Karamazov|Fyodor Dostoyevsky|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327882764s/4934.jpg|3393910]. And he has a very interesting discussion on the nature of Radical Relativism and Post-modernism, looking briefly at Derrida and Levinas, amongst others. Although he obviously respects Nietzsche for his logic, clarity, openness, passion and coherence, he lays a lot at his feet in terms of negative modern social issues, and explains him away in a rather facile manner
“…he [Nietzsche] did not really argue his case. Rather, he made assertions and expected his readers to agree with him. In this sense he was more of a poet than a philosopher.”
Later on, however, when discussing a Sufi mystic and poet by the name of Rumi, one of his Realists, of him Vardy says: “Poetry … provided insights into truth that were not available elsewhere, because poetry could show truth in a way that academic philosophy failed to do.”
The fictional character Ivan Karamazov comes in for a bit of a bashing too:
“He [Ivan Karamazov] says that he also believes in God, but he cannot accept the world God made and therefore cannot accept God as the creator of this world.”
“Ivan [Karamazov] says that, in his view, NOTHING is worth the suffering of innocent children, and no eventual end for the world can justify their suffering.”
“Ivan [Karamazov] places human justice above God and the result, seemingly, is the Holocaust. With the rebellion against God came the desire to maintain a divinity of man, but as Ivan Karamzov says, once God is rejected, then ‘everything is permitted’ because all the norms of conduct, all virtue and all meaning disappear as well.”
John Malkovich as Ivan Karamazov
(Although don't bother looking for the film ... it doesn't actually exist. This was just someone's idea on a website of 'ideal casting' for a film version. And he/she is quite right...)
Whether Ivan Karmazov ever actually says this is contentious enough, let alone if he really means it. Dosotevsky is writing not a treatise on philosophy, but a fiction that is highly philosophical, but is developed through very flawed, in-pain, contradictory human characters. This ‘everything is permitted’ statement emerges in different forms through a range of characters’ mouths throughout Dostoevsky’s masterwork read a fuller discussion here
: Smerdyakov who is trying to make Ivan feel complicit in the murder of his father; the Devil, as part of one of Ivan’s hallucinations; Dmitri, when talking to Alyosha about Ivan and Rakitin. And then when Ivan is talking to the elder Zosima:
“Can it be that you really hold this conviction about the consequences of the exhaustion of men's faith in the immortality of their souls?" the elder suddenly asked Ivan Fyodorovich.
“Yes, it was my contention. There is no virtue if there is no immortality.”
“You are blessed if you believe so, or else most unhappy!”
“Why unhappy?” Ivan Fyodorovich smiled.
“Because in all likelihood you yourself do not believe either in the immortalityof your soul or even in what you have written about the Church and the Church question.”
“Maybe you're right...! But still, I wasn't quite joking either...” Ivan Fyodorovich suddenly and strangely confessed—by the way, with a quick blush. [Dostoevsky]
Ivan is an highly-intelligent, strong-willed character that still retains the Karamazovian family trait for harsh joviality and occasional blustering overstatement. It is therefore a massive simplification of Dostoevsky’s brilliant creation to sum him up in the way Vardy does here for his own rhetorical purpose. I do not in any way consider the Holocaust a result of poor doomed Ivan’s ideas, ‘seemingly’ or not. If the first Crusaders had have had the technological ability to deal death as did the Nazi party in the 20th century, then such things would’ve been done in God's name. And Ivan would have equally as (un)happily used a (Jewish) child being thrown alive into an Auschwitz oven to illustrate his point regarding God’s complicity in the act if Dostoevsky had have lived after. Ivan doesn’t place human justice over God: all the acts he describes are perpetrated by humans after all:
“Men are themselves to blame, I suppose; they were given paradise, they wanted freedom, and stole fire from heaven, though they knew they would become unhappy, so there is no need to pity them.” [Ivan Karimazov: Dostoevsky]
It is God's complicity in the beastial acts of man that is the issue here, coupled with the fact that human beings are beneath God, did not create the world and are not omniscient.
“I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children…” [Ivan Karimazov: Dostoevsky]
He is a believer, and he wants God’s claims to be true. But he has a problem with how this truth seems to require the world to be so that it can be the Truth.
“And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.” [Ivan Karamazov: Dostoevsky]
So, all we are left with, due to this abandonment of vulnerable human life in favour of and as part of the structure of God’s Truth, is our own sense of justice.
“And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures.” [Ivan Karamazov: Dostoevsky]
Later, Vardy writes himself: “Great literature confronts us with insights into truth, into what it is to be human. These insights can and should challenge us, but all too rarely do we allow them to disturb the comfort of our lives. To stand for the value of great literature, art or music is often to be confronted by amused resignation or indifference or by downright rejection.”
Well, I stand for this value, and don’t like to see Ivan abused like this. So this, if given time, I will put to Peter myself. He can defend Truth: I shall defend Ivan Karamazov, and stake my life on it. So this is where he loses a star for me, but really, he could’ve found other examples to move his thesis along.
Then we get to Vardy’s Realist champions of Truth, or at least, the pursuit of Truth. He uses Kierkegaard, a quite interesting rabbi called The Kotzker, of whom I would certainly like to read more, back to Wittgenstein, the Sufi movement and a guy called Vaclav Havel.
There’s a lot about resisting complacency and the ease of self-deception on a social scale:
“‘Mundus vult decipi’—the world wants to be deceived. To live without deception presupposes standards beyond the reach of most people whose existence is largely shaped by compromise, evasion and mutual accommodation. Could they face their weakness, their vanity and selfishness, without a mask?”
Abraham Joshua Heschel
“…they [some people] really seek only their own satisfaction within their own system of thinking, within the comfort zone of their own community.”
This leads to a distillation process down to a recipe for ‘Living in the Truth’ which is a kind of equilateral triangle of three central points:
“Conscience, Inner Dialogue and Concern For One’s ‘Good Name’” (or, living life “…in such a way that it can bear examination” from a projected sense of the Other).
This is all strong stuff, and few people would reject these things as being negative. I added that proviso to the Concern For One’s ‘Good Name’ based on the further reading because I don’t think it read well against the idea of Truth-seeking as an act of social rebellion, something Vardy is quite adamant about being a potential necessity. He does however several times use the phrase (or similar):
‘…an ultimate Truth which goes beyond the individual psyche or community.’
Which would point toward a definite distinction between this ‘Living in the Truth’—of which all three points of his triangle remain firmly within—and ‘Truth’ itself, but this doesn’t contradict the nature of his thesis particularly, since he regularly also acknowledges a. the flawed nature of human perspective (which we have to live with), b. the universal need for the acceptance of error in any position (to avoid fundamentalism and keep the quest living) and c. the ultimate unknowability of Truth anyway (due mostly to a. and b.).
He has an admirable Socratic sense of humility-in-knowledge:
“A philosopher should be someone who knows nothing and is troubled to the depths of their being by their ignorance.”
And, while religion certainly remains important to Vardy, he also acknowledges frequently that it is often just as much a problem as it is a source of truth.
“The acceptance of doubt is the driving force of the human spirit. Faith is not faith if it thinks it is certainty. Faith within a community of faith has to remain faith despite the constant temptation to certainty.” [Brendan Callaghan]
This is how he charts the rushing tides between the shore of postmodernism and the rocky spit of Fundamentalism. The former is a rejection of the existence of Truth, and the latter a perceived certainty of Truth. Both are anathema to the Truth, and the concept of Living in the Truth.
So, Vardy welds together the Realist doctrine he’s put together and the conception of religious belief thusly:
“Religious believers are those who stake their lives on certain claims made within a form of life which may or may not be true, but whether they are true or not depends on a state of affairs that is independent on the language game through which they are described.”
“This … is not a truth that is created but a truth grounded in a relationship with the Unknown Other which some call God.”
And he also allows for more than just religion in this Truthful absurd tension, and puts religion in the same category as other social and intellectual systems, while then adding the Anti-realist position to the antithesis:
“Any religious, ethical or political system is likely to be more or less a construct, and any construct must take second place to an ultimate duty to absolute truth, if, of course, such a Truth is held to exist. If this is not accepted, then ethics and social norms are the highest ideals to which human beings can aspire and conformity to these should be the ultimate aim. The comfort zone of convention is then a safe place to be because there is nothing higher.”
He’s making being a Realist a little more rock & roll at least. We’re the ones bucking the system…
While some of his own assertions fell a little flat, and many rather complex ideas were a little glossy, I really enjoyed this read, and I feel in concord with many of the ideas regarding the Nature of Truth—unmediated reality—and the human relationship with it, and the importance of some degree of quest for it—though a range of mediums—while firmly realising that the quest itself is doomed to fail.
In his final analysis, Vardy put forward that the essential part of the any realist claim is: “…that one makes a truth claim that depends on correspondence and the possibility of error always exists. The most any individual can do is to stake their life on the claim to truth. Nothing more is possible.”
But do we have to do the most? Why is it all or nothing? If I feel that there is a good chance that there is an error in the manufacture of my parachute, would I jump out of the plane with it? No. I don’t think Vardy manages, despite his obvious passion, to justify this movement. It’s hard to uphold scepticism but also demand a kind of fundamentalist absolute-all bet-your-life buy in.
But he appeals to me sweetly at the very end of the book, amongst a series of other archetypes that would normally be frowned upon by uppity religious types. I include here the one that fitted me:
“By contrast … the atheist who is tortured by the problems of the human condition, who is angry with the God whom he does not believe exists and who devotes his life to the search for understanding … may be closer to ‘living the Truth’ than those who claim to ‘know the Truth’. None of them may be the sort of people the world would regard as ‘successful’ and, in many cases, the world may pity them, but it may be the world which deserves pity.”
Nice of you to say, Pete. Cheers.
Though do I really have to “stake my life on it”?